A brilliant but peculiar professor of Ancient Eastern languages, Jonathan Jones (Tom Poston), finds that an amulet sent to his niece Cynthia (Zeme North) by a boyfriend from an archeological dig has magical powers. Whoever has the amulet in their possession can 1) cause great pain by pointing at another living creature, 2) cause time to go into slow motion by saying the word "Zotz!", or 3) cause instant death by simultaneously pointing and saying "Zotz!". Both government and Communist agents immediately develop an interest in the amulet's possible military use. (This is a metaphor for the age of nuclear weapons, as the novel was written two years after atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). In the meantime, Jones and rival professor Kellgore (Jim Backus) are both in line for a promotion to take over from retiring Dean Updike as head of this California university's language department. A new colleague and possible romantic interest, Professor Fenster (Julia Meade), is startled by Jones' behavior, particularly at a party thrown by Updike's wife that turns into chaos.