Some scientists believe that, at some point in the future, humans will be able to use technology to become immortal. It’s an event often referred to as The Singularity. But while some consider The Singularity to be a positive step in human evolution, and others think it will lead to a dystopia, in his new novel After Death (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Dean Koontz presents a version that’s neither entirely good nor entirely bad. In the following email interview, Koontz explains what inspired this thriller, and why it’s neither a cautionary tale nor a hope for the future.
Photo Credit: Douglas Sonders
To start, what is After Death about, and when and where does it take place?
It’s about as much fun as a thrilling toboggan ride through a picturesque forest, with pauses for martinis and an array of delicious snacks. Michael Mace is head of security at a top-secret facility where all 55 researchers and staff members perish — but Michael, unlike the other 54, returns to life. With a strange new ability. His best friend Shelby died in the lab event, and Michael, in grief, feels obligated to assist Nina, with whom Shelby was in love but to whom he never expressed his feelings. Nina, single mother of John, is threatened by violent L.A. gangbangers, and Michael is the target of the Internal Security Agency, which operated the lab, and soon all three leads are on the run from a colorful variety of murderous psychopaths. This is ostensibly about The Singularity, the moment when humanity experiences an evolutionary step by merging with digital technology, but it’s really about rebirth, second chances, friendship, and love.
Where did you get the idea for After Death?
I’ve been reading fiction and non-fiction about The Singularity. A lot of books present it as the most beneficial development in human history, a promise that we will become super smart and immortal. Given the flawed nature of humanity, I find that optimism as absurd as the idea that a random protozoa that causes malaria will, by 2026, evolve to such an extent that it will forsake being the cause of a disease, earn a high school diploma, and enter the gig economy as a driver for Uber. Then there are the novels in which The Singularity leads to a dystopian future. There are so many dystopian novels, movies, and TV shows that it’s a wonder the suicide rate isn’t ten times higher than it is. I wanted to approach The Singularity as neither the door to Utopia or the trapdoor to Hell. Michael Mace doesn’t become super smart or immortal, but he gains an ability that gives him an edge and exploits it to the fullest, not to save the world or destroy it, but to defend those people he cares about.
Is there a reason why you set this in Southern California as opposed to, say, New York City and Philly or Tokyo and Shanghai?
I know California intimately. I haven’t been to New York City in 48 years, and I’ve never been to Tokyo. I’m relatively familiar with the dark side of the moon, but if I set the novel there, the entire story would have to unfold in deep darkness, which is too much of a challenge to my powers of description. Besides, contemporary California is Crazyland, a different place from the California we moved to in 1976, and if anything as bizarre as this story could unfold anywhere in real life, it’s here.
After Death sounds like a supernatural thriller, emphasis more on the thriller part than the supernatural…
There’s nothing supernatural in After Death. I wouldn’t even say it has a science-fiction element because what happens to Michael, the ability he develops, is something that could become a reality in ten years. Elon Musk might even say five. This is a thriller about overcoming all the things that keep us in bondage and limit us: fear, hate, bitterness, self-pity, and so on.
In the interview we did about The House At The End Of The World, you said that “…few if any books have been influenced by just one or two other writers or stories.” I assume this is true of After Death, but just to be safe, were any aspects of this story inspired or influenced by something you’d read or seen elsewhere? And I include in that books, movies, TV shows, life experiences, some dark chocolate that you ate…
In addition to what I said above regarding the reading about The Singularity, these are just a few of the usual quotidian influences that mounted during the months the novel was being written: the intriguing list of contents on the wrapper of the power bar I eat every morning for breakfast; the inexplicable fear that accompanied a memory of the dancing raisins in those old TV commercials; the mystery of what a fellow motorist was saying to me from behind his muffling windows when I cut him off in traffic; the frustration I feel when trying to read Mandarin Chinese though I’ve never been taught the language; the paralyzing dread that overcame me when California’s public health authorities declared that red dye #3 in Skittles might be the 6,798th substance linked somehow to cancer… Really, I could go on for thousands of words regarding quotidian influences.
What about Elsa, your dog? Did she have any influence on After Death?
What are you implying, Paul? Are you implying that my golden retriever might in fact have written or at least plotted this novel? That is not the case. I take umbrage at such an implication. Indeed, I take more umbrage than could be packed into an eighteen-wheel Peterbilt. I can further assure you that Elsa neither reviews my spelling nor corrects my punctuation, that in fact I am quite without need for such assistance. Neither does Elsa respond to Q&As like this on my behalf. That would be a shocking accusation, like something a cat would say! To avoid unpleasantries with my attorney, you might consider sending me a Kong toy or one of those soft-toy lambs with squeaky things in it or — yes, yes, yes — or a bag of Zuke’s biscuits with berries in them, which are good, good, good, good.
After Death sounds like it’s a stand-alone story. But you never know, so I’ll ask: Is After Death a stand-alone story or the first book in a series?
I just received my author’s copies, and I stood one on my desk, and it didn’t fall over, so I’d say it’s definitely a stand-alone. No question about it. Why? Who knows why? Life is filled with mysteries, and we just have to accept that there’s much we’ll never know.
You’ve had a bunch of your novels made into movies. Do you think After Death could work as a movie as well?
The producer who optioned The House At The End Of The World for a streaming series — who is a good guy, a great guy, maybe even a saint; whose partner might be a saint too; we’ll see — has said After Death is more suited to a film that might inspire a sequel. I think that’s correct.
And if someone adapts After Death into a movie that might inspire a sequel, who would you want them to cast as Michael, Shelby, Durand, and the other main characters?
Do I look like a casting director? I don’t think I look like a casting director. I think I look like a lighting guy or maybe like a weird guy who assists the prop master without pay, just for the privilege of wearing the fake mustache that Brad Pitt wore or the hat that Sandra Bullock fondled.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about After Death?
Need to know? Not would like to know but need to know? Like if they’re choking on a piece of filet mignon and no one in the restaurant knows the Heimlich maneuver? Look, Paul, After Death isn’t going to save anyone’s life. Unless they’ve read ten unsatisfying novels in a row and have decided to jump off a high bridge, in which case I honestly believe that reading After Death would be so enjoyable that it would give them faith in literature again.
Finally, if someone enjoys After Death, and it’s the first book of yours they’ve read, which of your other novels would you tell them to read next and why that one?
The House At The End Of The World is action-packed and scary, and Devoted will probably make them sweat and smile, and Intensity will permanently curl their hair. Let me add that Devoted has a dog as one of the main characters, and every book is better when there’s a dog in it. Dogs are smarter than you think, especially golden retrievers, like the dog in Devoted. You wouldn’t believe all the skills golden retrievers possess. The dog in Devoted is named Kipp, and he has a lot of Kong toys and soft-toy lambs with squeaky things in them, and he likes Zuke’s biscuits for dogs with berries in them. Just sayin’.