Nick's talent extends to programming the network using only a touch tone telephone. One of his handlers at Tarnover explains that this is like a classical pianist being able to play entire sonatas and concertos from memory. However Nick also has some personality flaws, amounting almost to a deathwish. These manifest themselves in exhibitions of his abilities, revealing his identity to his pursuers.
The background to the story includes a massive earthquake laying waste to the Bay Area in California. Millions die in this, and millions more are left to live on government handouts. The subsequent economic depression, coupled with the rootlessness encouraged by access to online data, results in a fragmentation of society along religious, ethnic and even tribal lines, while privileged people enjoy protected lifestyles in their own enclaves. Nick is a survivor of a public education system where teenage gangs run riot while the products of various government-funded initiatives, such as teaching machines, lie broken and unused around them. To be intelligent in this environment is to stand out, and risk being "sanded", the word "sand" being an abbreviation for the Vietnam-era expression "search and destroy".
Although he initially felt at home at Tarnover, Nick eventually becomes aware of experiments in genetic engineering being performed there. These produce monstrous deformed children who are disposed of when they are no longer needed for study. At this point Nick becomes determined to escape. He studies data processing, steals a personal ID code intended for privileged individuals who wish to live their lives without surveillance, and goes on the run. He uses the stolen computer access code to cover his data trails and create new identities for himself, easily adopting entire new personas. One such is the pastor of a popular church, another is an idle playboy gigolo.
In this last role, calling himself Sandy Locke, he becomes the lover of Ina Grierson, a top executive at "Ground to Space Industries", a powerful "hypercorp" known to all as "G2S". Intending to use the computer facilities at G2S to ensure that his code is still valid after the six years he has been away, he signs on as a "systems rationalizer" with the company. This brings him into contact with Ina's daughter, Kate, who attracts him despite her plain appearance and simple lifestyle. At the age of 22, Nick's age when he left Tarnover, Kate is a perpetual student at "UMKC". She is perceptive enough to penetrate Nick's adopted persona, deeply disturbing him even though she fascinates him. He visits her at home, helping her to clean out some of her junk, and meeting her tame cougar, Bagheera. Bagheera is the product of her late father's genetic research into intelligence. He died shortly after abandoning the research because the government was using it to produce animals for military uses.
The 21st-century lifestyle produces a symptom called "overload" in many people, and most, including Nick, take tranquilizers to some degree. However Nick collapses completely when told that a representative from Tarnover is coming to meet him at G2S. He returns to Kate and confesses that he is not what he seems, asking for her help. She conducts him to one of the "paid avoidance areas" in California, where people are paid to do without the full panoply of modern technology, as an alternative to spending billions to rebuild infrastructure after the earthquake. After Nick risks exposure yet again in one of these places, they move to the least known one, a town called Precipice.
Precipice turns out to be a Utopian community of a few thousand people. The nearest comparison would be an agrarian, cottage industry community designed by William Morris. Precipice is also the home of "Hearing Aid", an anonymous telephone confession service accessible to anyone in the country. Hearing Aid is also know as the "Ten Nines", after the phone number used to call it: 999-999-9999. People call the service and simply talk. Some rant, others seek sympathy, still others commit suicide while on the phone. Hearing Aid's promise is that nobody else, not even the government, heard the call. The only response Hearing Aid gives to a caller is "Only I heard that."
Nick and Kate settle into the community. The inhabitants include intelligent dogs, which escaped from the projects that Kate's father worked on. These act as companions, guards, nannies, and even lie detectors, using their sense of smell. Nick rewrites the "computer tapeworm" which prevents the calls to Hearing Aid being monitored. While at G2S he became aware of massive backups of data being performed, clearly in anticipation of a major network outage. The Hearing Aid worm is designed to scramble network traffic if attacked, but Nick realizes that it could be destroyed if the authorities were prepared for the effects and ready to recover from them. His new worm, which he calls a "phage", cannot be removed without destroying the entire network.
Possibly encouraged by the government, local gangs and tribes raid Precipice, burning down Nick and Kate's house before being overwhelmed by the dogs. Nick, suffering another overload, blames Kate for the incident, since she, following Hearing Aid policy, cut off a call from someone attempting to warn Precipice. He hits her, and then, filled with remorse, leaves the town. He finally reveals his location to the authorities when, encountering one of the "Roman circus" operations which broadcast live fights and other bloody exhibitions to the country, he responds to an "all comers" challenge by the father of the leader of one of the gangs, and cripples him in front of a nationwide audience.
At Tarnover, Paul Freeman takes charge of the interrogation. He was the representative whom Nick, as Sandy Locke, was supposed to meet at G2S. Freeman, a tall gaunt African-American, gradually comes to realize that he has more sympathy with Nick's views than his employer's, and eventually absconds himself, giving Nick computer access so that Nick can make his own escape. The precipitating event in this case is Kate's abduction by government agents, who bring her to Tarnover for further questioning and to threaten Nick.
With the code he gets from Freeman, he sets up an identity as an Army Major, with Kate as his prisoner. Once clear of Tarnover, they disappear together. This time around, Nick has another plan, and rather than running and hiding, he and Kate spend a number of months traveling the country, aided by an `invisible college' of academics who are allies or former residents of Precipice. He creates a new "worm" which is designed to destroy all secrecy. (Brunner invented the term "worm" for this program, as a self-replicating program that propagates across a computer network - the term "worm" was later adopted by computer researchers as the name for this type of program.)
The worm is eventually activated, and the details of all the government's dark secrets (clandestine genetic experimentation that produces crippled children, bribes and kickbacks from corporations, concealed crimes of high public officials) now become accessible from anywhere on the network - in fact, those most affected by a particular crime of a government official are emailed the full details.
In place of the old system, Nick has designed the worm to enforce a kind of utilitarian socialism, with people's worth being defined by their roles in society, not their connections in high places. In effect, the network becomes the entire government and financial system, policing income for illegal money, freezing the accounts of criminals, while making sure money (or credit) flows to places where people are in need.
This will only happen fully if the results of a plebiscite, again conducted over the network, allow it.
In a final atavistic attempt at revenge, the government orders a nuclear strike by a single aircraft from a local Air Force base. Warned by Hearing Aid, Nick is able to penetrate the military computers and manufacture a counter-order to stop the plane just before it reaches the town.
The book ends optimistically, with there being no more privileged hiding of information, no more secret conspiracies of the rich and powerful.
Kate Lilleberg is the daughter of a high-powered executive mother and a genius scientist father. She seems content to be a perpetual student, however, until she meets Nick, seeing in him a real person under the false persona. Unlike her friends, she is capable of deep commitment, as exemplified by her fulfilling her promise to her dead father, and caring for the cougar, Bagheera, bred by her father for his researches. Her chosen life has one feature her mother cannot appreciate: it allows her to remain in one place.
Paul T. Freeman has spent his 39 years studying, learning, and believing in the objectives of Tarnover and Electric Skillet. Nick's plan is to lead him to areas where his high intelligence will question his perceptions and beliefs, resulting in the inevitable turning away from the power elite he serves.
Ralph C. Hartz is the Deputy Director of the Bureau of Data Processing, and the man to whom Paul Freeman reports his progress on interrogating Nick. However he himself serves entrenched interests in Washington D.C. When Nick, with Paul's help, escapes with even more powerful codes than before, he is ruthlessly cast aside, not least because his superiors refuse to accept that the new codes must be disabled so soon after replacing the old ones.
Ina Grierson, Kate's mother, lives in world of personal power but is as prone to paranoia as the lowest of her underlings. Good looking at the age of forty-something, she clings to her youthfulness, partly by taking younger lovers. The stress of living in a connected world is partly defused by luxury vacations, on one of which she meets "Sandy Locke". Later, after Kate is abducted she is jolted out of her complacency, and with the aid of software written by "Sandy" she is able to penetrate the government smokescreen.
Most of the characters live with the feeling that their lives could be turned upside down in an instant because of someone breaking into the data held on the network. They also believe that the network knows more about them than they do about themselves. This is an extension of the sense of paranoia felt by many people in the 1970's, believing themselves to be powerless in the face of political and economic forces over which they had no control.
Perception is a recurrent theme in the novel. In particular, Brunner is concerned with perceptual patterns and how they can both help and mislead. Nick projects patterns of behavior to assume his personas, but Kate has "natural wisdom" which means that she ignores surface patterns to perceive the truth beneath. When they arrive in Precipice, the couple have to abandon their normal "urban pattern" to see the ways in which the town's unique design merges public and private space, along with natural and artificial structures.
The theme of patterns in perception runs through the entire novel. Future shock arises when reality and change disrupt patterns. People respond by falling into strong patterns within human nature, particularly tribalism.
Others try to convince themselves that all change is good, adopting the "plug in" lifestyle where they feel able to relocate to another city and insert themselves into a new social niche with a minimum of inconvenience. Their mobility is, however, a reflection of the failure of the lifestyle to satisfy them, resulting in more moves.
In this world of confusion, there are also companies specializing in psychological intervention. One such is "Anti-Trauma Inc." who are hired to "normalize" children, although what they do is more akin to "deprogramming", as performed on children retrieved from cults. They do significant harm to their charges, although as so often happens in Brunner's interconnected society, they also spend much money and time covering up their failures.
Both novels throw streams of neologisms and invented slang at the reader. Although some of this jars, notably "kaygee" for "kilogram", the slang serves to sketch in details of society, particularly when it comes to gender roles. Men are referred to in phallic terms as "shiv" or "shivver" or "poker", women as "slitties". The corresponding slang from Stand on Zanzibar would be "codder" (from codpiece) and "shiggy" (origin unknown, possibly related to "jiggle"). In each case, the slang represents a coarsening of attitudes toward the opposite sex.
Stand on Zanzibar balances House with Donald P. Hogan, his sometime room-mate and a participant in a government-sponsored program to create cross-disciplinary experts for use as spies. Freeman's antagonist is Nick Haflinger, who has not met Freeman until he is recaptured.
Like the other novel, this one makes reference to an acerbic philosopher and commentator. Whereas Stand on Zanzibar featured many quotes from the works of the fictional "Chad C. Mulligan", who eventually appeared as a character, this novel merely makes occasional reference to a commentator called Angus Porter. It is clear from these references that both Mulligan and Porter are outsiders in society. Porter's most notable quote here is an epigram:
Both novels show people under stress, one by overpopulation, the other by "future shock". In Stand on Zanzibar people who crack under the strain become "muckers", as in "running amuck", usually killing several others before being killed themselves. In this novel the result of too much stress is "overload", a state of almost catatonic retreat from the world.
In both stories, there is a peaceful haven where the conflicts in the world do not occur, where a solution may be found. In this novel it is Precipice, whereas in Stand on Zanzibar it is the surprisingly stable and peaceful country of Beninia, which owes its situation to a pheromone, produced by the natives, which defuses aggression. Precipice owes its peacefulness to a combination of careful regulation and what later became known as appropriate technology.
The television series The Pretender featured a hero, Jarod, who had absconded from a facility for gifted people, and who could take on any role in society thanks to his high intelligence.