The protagonist, David MacKinnon, is a romantic idealist up for trial for assault. Since the government fears that he will repeat his action, he is given a choice: either allow trained psychologists to fix him, or leave to an area known as Coventry. MacKinnon chooses to emigrate so he can escape the boredom of a too civilized society. He is sent to the rugged outland beyond the Barrier, where people who refuse to abide by social norms are exiled, rather than submit to radical psychotherapy. He finds out that the peaceful anarchy he envisioned is but a corrupt democracy and he is immediately jailed, losing all his goods. Outside of the democracies is a military dictatorship and a group of expatriates of the former theocracy. Befriended by a man he knows only as "the Fader," he breaks out of jail. He then finds out that the dictatorship is planning an attack on civilization. He breaks out of Coventry with Fader to warn the community from which he's just emigrated. He then learns that the Fader is actually an agent of the United States Army, and that he has redeemed himself by risking his life to warn the rest of the country.