"Star Quest" was the first novel written by Dean Koontz, and was published in 1968, as the reverse side to Doom of the Green Planet. Before I begin this book, I already had some ideas about it. First, it was in an Ace Double. Second, it was the first novel of an author that would become a successful author of what I would deem jingoistic airport fiction. Second, my copy came with a bookmark from a bookstore called "Middle Earth Books" in San Francisco, as well as a stamp from "The Book Nook" in Cocoa Beach, Florida, both of which don't have area codes or zip codes, meaning that this volume travelled extensively decades ago, before it reached my area. And then there is the cover: in the foreground, a gun-wielding He-Man (and later the text would, indeed, identify him as a "He-Man") poses while a beautiful cat woman (and later the text would, indeed, identify her as a "cat woman") clenches his bicep. In the background, there is a city, a spaceship thing, and a line of shambling animalistic figures. There is the title, "Star Quest", so generic that I can not believe it was not used before this point. And there is the tagline on the cover: "THEY DROVE A SALIENT INTO ANOTHER UNIVERSE".
Well, something is going on here. Was I ready for what I was about to read?
When I started reading the book, the cover started making sense, which is rarely a given with an Ace Double.
The book starts in a very dramatic in medias res, with a spaceship going rogue. It turns out that this spaceship is a biomechanical machine, piloted by a human brain. We quickly learn that the human brain in question was harvested from an innocent primitive villager by a warlike empire to serve as a drugged, brainwashed pilot for a mech-type thing, but that due to an error, it regained awareness and is escaping. Our protagonist, named Tohm, finds a floating library, controlled by another human brain, who fills him (and the reader) in on the backstory of the universe. Two star empires, representing radical leftist and radical right beliefs, are fighting an endless war, while the peaceful galactic federation is caught in the middle. Early phases of this war fought with nuclear bombs created a race of powerful but deformed "mutants" who are trying to use psionic powers to escape to a parallel universe. Tohm, our protagonist, originally starts with the motivation of finding a woman from his primitive village that was captured in the same raid, but also finds himself meeting the mutants, including the cat-woman of the cover. Oh: also, despite being a brain in a vat on a super fighter plane/tank, he can also recreate a body when needed, which is why we see him on the cover looking like a muscled warrior. (Incidentally, the book says he was originally of "bronze" skin, but was recreated as a white, blond man. Make of that as you will.).
Ace Double books are short. This book is 127 pages, and manages to fit both the adventurous aspects of gun battles and romance in with some really high-flung science-fiction concepts, such as parallel universes, cyborgs, and a man who has gone insane from looking at God.
So, after this book, I have to admit that, whatever his later activities, Dean Koontz started out as a wildly imaginative and fun science-fiction writer.