The story takes place in a (then-future) fictional 1998, and centers around Anarch Peak, a black religious leader who had died in 1971 and is expected to rise soon. Sebastian Hermes, an owner of a small Vitarium (a business that digs up the dead and gives them the treatment they need before returning them to society), discovers Peak's resurrection is imminent. After accidentally discovering the burial place of Peak, he decides, against the law, to dig up the body before the Anarch awakes. (As with contemporary controversies about brain death, it seems not to be judged morally significant if a heartbeat can be heard, but it is illegal to dig anyone up before they start talking, which suggests resumed brain function is a marker of "old-birth.")
Various groups are interested in controlling the affairs of the 'old-born', such as the Vitaria (technically, a person resurrected is in the legal custody of their Vitarium until claimed by family members) and the Library, an organization dedicated to erasing books which have passed beyond the initial date at which they were written.
Religious institutions are also interested in 'old-birth', particularly in the resurrection of Anarch Peak in the case of the Udites (an African-American religion) and The Rome Syndicate (the highest authority in Caucasian matters, as well as the owner of numerous religious artifacts and other items, like a syringe that can stop the Hobart Phase for short periods of time). These factions then argue over the ownership of Anarch Peak after his resurrection. When the Library kidnaps Anarch Peak, both factions send Seb Hermes to recover him. In the end Peak is killed and there may be an interracial war as a consequence of Peak's permanent death.
Inhabitants of the WUS view the religion with suspicion, and it is hinted that their media demonizes its adherents. Library-sanctioned murders and civil unrest are claimed to be the works of religious fanatics. FNM currency is claimed to be worthless, as is WUS currency (stated earlier in the book), but its citizens ignore this due to patriotism.