Search for the Star Stones is an omnibus of two linked Norton novels, 1968’s The Zero Stone and 1969’s Uncharted Stars. Many of Norton’s books shared an ancient universe where the history of technological civilizations began long before humans appeared and would presumably long continue once we fell into dust with the rest. While the Zacathans managed to survive through two million years, such longevity is not the usual case and most of the civilizations that rose and fell, lumped together as a misleadingly unitary term “Forerunner”, are known only through enigmatic relics.
The Zero Stone
Murdoc Jern’s life has been tangled up with one particular Forerunner relic since he was a boy and his adopted father, retired criminal Hywel Jern acquired a ring set with an odd stone recovered from the body of a dead alien in deep space. Possession of the ring and its “zero stone” made Hywel a target for torture and murder but whoever killed Hywel did not know where he hid the stone and Murdoc has kept the ring with him ever since.
We learn the above in flashback: when we meet Murdoc, the gem trader to whom he is apprenticed has been murdered by cultists and Murdoc himself is on the run from a mob enraged at his lack of cooperation over the whole human sacrifice thing. Murdoc manages to escape that trap and stumbles into another, begging passage on a ship whose crew, he very belatedly discovers, is part of the plot against him.
That alone would probably be enough for most adventure books but Murdoc also manages to cross paths with Eet, a creature with mysterious nature who uses the ship’s cat to forge itself a new body; like so many people do in this universe, Eet has a use for Murdoc and he soon finds himself a thrall of the alien. If that wasn’t enough, the Zero Stone has an agenda of its own.
Caught up in forces beyond his comprehension, Murdoc struggles to stay alive and out of jail despite the best efforts of Eet, the Zero Stone, the murderous Thieves Guild, the Patrol and the occasional club wielding primitive.
Having survived intact, Murdoc and his partner Eet are now in possession of a starship neither of them can fly and the ever helpful Patrol, still smarting over how Murdoc unjustly escaped being convicted for various crimes on the trifling technicality that he was innocent of the particular charges the Patrol brought against him, has taken steps to make sure no law abiding pilot will sign on with the pair. Happily, there is one pilot desperate enough for a job to work on Murdoc’s ship. Less happily, the pilot is a drug addict.
While Murdoc would likely be happy by this point to live out the rest of his life quietly trading for semi-precious gems, what he actually gets to do is assist the lone Zacathan survivor of a Jack raid recover the precious artifacts the Jacks stole from the alien archaeologist, something that requires infiltrating and then escaping from Waystation, a particularly well-guarded deep space lair.
Among the lost treasures is an ancient star map, which may lead the adventurers to wealth beyond compare or merely to a quick death. The prudent thing would be to let the alien gather a team of well-trained, well-defended professionals to follow up on that clue. Guess what Murdoc and company actually do?
As I recall, this is pretty close to the point when Norton suddenly became comfortable having women and romantic relationships play central roles in her fiction but while there is a romance in the second book, it is very much a last minute phenomenon1 and the woman involved, while on stage in both books, is not presented as female until the last moment. Otherwise, there are almost no women in this and in general
The trays were carried by humans or aliens, none of whom had a face to be observed long without acute distaste. Some of them were noticeably female, others — well it could be a guess.
they are not presented very positively. Even Murdoc’s mother comes off poorly because of the spiteful way she pursues her grudge against Murdoc, an adopted son forced on her by the government.
In the long ago, Ace Books like to have an ad for Norton somewhere in direct proximity to their ads for Heinlein’s juvvies in the old Ace mass market paperbacks. As it happens I have a copy of Heinlein’s Red Planet to hand and immediately before the page listing ten of Heinlein’s juveniles plus an anthology, they have two pages listing fifty Andre Nortons, from Android at Arms to The Zero Stone. I can see their logic: if they could convince the same readers who liked Heinlein to try Norton, they stood to sell six times as many books.
Generally Norton liked to write about people far from the lofty peaks of society, finding more drama in people trying to escape from displaced persons camps, traders scratching for a living alongside larger, more powerful concerns, and despised mercenaries. Murdoc is luckier than his father in that he really is very nearly law abiding when the opportunity presents itself but most of the powerful groups in the universe are against him and the entities with whom he is allied are more interested in using him as a tool than actually helping him.
Although Norton’s shaky grasp of the hard sciences, as indicated by passages like “a red-dwarf star — a dying sun”, works against her, she tries very hard to paint a universe that is much, much older than humanity or even the ancient, wise Zacathans and far grander than we can ever hope to master. In a way, humanity as a whole is as insignificant to the Milky Way as her characters are in their societies and while individuals like Murdoc can find happy endings, I suspect that is not the way to bet for humanity.
Andre Norton, born Alice Mary Norton in 1912, had a career that spanned from 1934 to her death in 2005; her pen name, later adopted as her legal name, was chosen to hide her gender from the boys who were her primary target market early in her career. Extremely prolific (I’ve seen her total count given as 300 titles), she published in science fiction, fantasy and other genres, was the first female Grandmaster and the Norton is named in her honour. While she may no longer be well known, her legacy lives on in the works of the many authors her books influenced.
Search for the Star Stones may be purchased in various formats from Baen Books.
- Would I be a cad for pointing out the entity for whom Murdoc falls previously demonstrated powerful psychic abilities? But I am certain the mutual attraction is completely sincere and in no way related to the entity’s proven ability to make Murdoc dance like a meat-puppet?