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The Zero Stone, by Andre Norton
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Viking
Published: 1968
Review Posted: 5/26/2008
Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 9 out of 10

The Zero Stone, by Andre Norton

Book Review by Edward F. McKeown

Have you read this book?

The Zero Stone opens with a man fleeing for his life down the darkened alleys of a primitive alien city. He's a Terran, younger half of a team of jewel dealers. His partner has been murdered when the priests of an alien religion, in an unheard of act, select an off-worlder for a sacrifice and are answered with lasers. His partner dead, Murdoc Jern flees to an alien sanctuary and uses his store of jewels to bribe his way to a Free Trader space freighter and escape offworld.

But it is not an escape; a net is being drawn around Jern. The net has spanned the gulfs of interstellar space as the Thieves Guild reaches out in search of the Zero Stone, an ancient and mysterious artifact that is Jern's prize possession, a heritage from his father.

Jern's father was a passionate collector of jewels, secrets and mysteries, particularly those associated with the ancient and long disappeared races called the Forerunners. These aliens reached incredible heights of technology ages ago before disappearing, destroyed in wars or leaving space-time for unguessed of destinations. The Jerns are perfectly positioned to learn these secrets positioned in a "hock-lock" or pawnshop near a spaceport.

Murdoc's world collapses around him after a particular stone is brought into the shop, a colorless, lifeless lump on a large ring. It is a zero stone, an artifact from the time of the Forerunners, found on a drifting spacesuit and alien corpse. With the stone comes the death of Jern's father after a mysterious meeting with an offworlder. Jern learns his father was a former Veep (VIP) retired from the shadowing quasi-government of the Thieves Guild. Now that Guild has reached out for the Zero Stone. Bur the killers do not find the stone, which Murdoc takes from his father's hidden safe.

Other blows fall. Jern learns from his mother that he is a contract child, a test-tube baby decanted on this world for genetic diversity. His "mother" makes it clear that his younger brother, her natural child, is to inherit all. Jern who has always and only been his father's son has never cared for either mother or brother. He leaves to become apprenticed to Vondar Ustle, a master jeweler with wanderlust. They journey and trade in a life Jern comes to love before it ends in a dagger thrust in an alien bar.

The Free Trader in which Jern escapes lands on various worlds. On one, the ship's cat eats what appears to be a stone from a riverbed. Days later the cat is pregnant. The spacers, fearing, some alien contagion, isolate the beast, which gives birth to an oddly shaped mutant. But it is more than that. The mutant is something ancient, reborn, powerfully intelligent, armed with telepathic ability and knowledge of things Forerunner. Jern falls ill with what seems a fever. The crew's fears are confirmed. They are determined to kill both Jern and the mutant.

Jern, delirious and suggestible, follows the voice in his head and escapes with the mutant out into space protected only be a spacesuit and with a container holding the mutant. Then the Zero Stone ring plays a part. It begins to glow and drags the pair through deep space to the site of an ancient forerunner wreck where they find an operational lifeboat.

Jern's recovery is abrupt. The illness was a telepathic manipulation by the mutant who calls itself Eet. It learned that the Free Traders were actually Thieves Guild from the minds of the crew. It knew that they were responsible for killing Ustle and planned to deliver Jern to their bosses. Eet also knows of the Zero stone and its almost limitless power.

The two are forced into an alliance to fight for their lives and freedom when they land on an unknown world where there is a store of Zero Stones. They are caught between the Thieves guild and the Space Patrol in a battle for possession of the ancient artifacts.

The Pros: The relationship with Eet is the strength of this book. Maddening and intriguing, Eet is a recreation of a Forerunner, a personality hidden in the seed eaten by the freighter ship's cat. Smug, superior and yet somehow endearing, Eet is full of surprises. As Jern plunges ahead on his own adventure, he touches those of others. These alien worlds, cultures and peoples are not mere devices but are rich and complex and we sometimes want to turn aside and spend more time exploring them. This is also true of the gem lore, the little we learn makes us fascinated, even covetous, the gems begin to wink in our minds, sensuous and seductive.

The Cons: Andre Norton's books are usually devoid of sex and sexuality and The Zero Stone is no exception. One sometimes hungers for a little higher degree of complexity or sophistication which with Norton simply is not there. Dialogue is sometimes clumsy with odd turns of phrase such as "my hurt" as opposed to "my wound."

The Space Patrol which in Andre Norton's books is a combination of police force and navy is unsympathetically portrayed. The Patrolman, Hory, is violently xenophobic, which seems odd in the pluralistic galaxy that Norton describes. However she develops this theme in other books in this shared universe, notably Last Planet, wherein the Patrol is rather isolated from Galactic life and human-dominated. When one realizes that the Zero Stone's function is to make almost any machine or weapon more powerful, one can understand the Patrol's desire to not leave such power in the son of a Thieves Guild Veep and an unknown mutant. Still Hory, the "double star" patrol agent (equivalent to a double-00 operative in James Bond's universe) is a one note performance and without empathy or depth.

In sum, I love the book and forgive it the minor transgression above. There is high adventure and a fascinating universe to explore with pirates, ancient ruins, mysterious weapons and devices. Yes, it could use a green Orion slave girl or two.

Stay Tuned for the sequel "Uncharted Stars." This is a rare case of the sequel being better than the original, rather like the second Terminator movie.
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