In Player Piano, everything is controlled by machines and computers and depends on productivity. The managers and engineers only create new programs for more productive production. Even the rates of production and consumption are calculated by a computer (EPICAC), which is seated in the large Carlsbad cavern system. The EPICAC computer even determines the people’s careers and in this way their whole lives. It gives intelligence tests to everyone, and on the basis of their results it sorts people into two categories – suitable for university entering exams and suitable for ‘work’. The university studies allow their graduates to become managers, engineers, writers or public relation workers. You may become a writer only if you get a university degree, the literature is heavily censored and you may write only “suitable” facts and create stories about authorized settings. Ordinary people were degraded into a role of passive consumers.
They do not have to work anymore; the only really working jobs are either supervisors in industry or agriculture, or reconstruction and restoration groups, or soldiers. But supervisors do not have any work; reconstruction and restoration workers are too numerous to work really; and soldiers are bullied cruelly. The majority of population is bored since they have everything they need, all their homework is done by automatons and machines, and their only job is entertainment. Dr Paul Proteus lives in the city of Ilium, N.Y. The city is divided into three major parts: the managers and engineers are in the northwest, in the northeast there is a large industrial plant, quite a large city by itself, and in the south across the river there is the town for ordinary people, who are the rough majority.
He is employed in the Illium Industrial Plant as a general manager. His only work is to rule the factory so that its productivity still increases and so that there are no saboteurs. Computers control all the other. He is a married, thirty-five-year old, tall, and thin man of darkish skin. His father was a celebrated founder of the local industrial plant and its first general manager. All Paul’s career is before him, waiting for him. He is a candidate for a better job, and he might grow up in the hierarchy of the American industry to be offered the seat of general manager of the state industrial division. His wife Anita relies on him and she still keeps telling him to be a correct son of his father. She trains him in the hierarchy rules and opportunism. He feels he should follow his father’s tracks, but he is not very fond of being a general manager.
He doesn’t not know of any better job, and in fact he even would not want to get any. He tries to be as best a s possible although he finds no interest in his job. His kind and fatherly superior Kroner relies on him because he used to be an old friend of Paul’s father in the days of his life. Kroner sees the old Dr. Proteus in Paul and treats him so. He trusts in Paul’s powers and abilities and he would like to see the young engineer in the highest possible post. Paul has got an old university friend, a character who is very important for this book. His name is Ed Finnerty. He is the fatal character for Paul because he is the one who makes Paul realize his real position and all the people’s real positions. He is a drunk and stupid person who is also dirty. He is only able to see the life and his own role in it as it really is. Ed Finnerty is the one who shows Paul the real life of the ordinary people beyond the river. The life they lead is terribly poor and pitiful despite all the technology that serves them.
They are slaves of technology. They are so bored that they find entertainment in the meanest things like sitting in pubs and drinking till loss of consciousness. Ed visits Paul one evening and takes him to a pub. There they get in contact with some interesting people including some revolutionaries. Some of the people he meets there speak to him nicely and are glad to see him as the one who helped them find a job. Those are the workers from his factory. Some of the others speak to him in dislike and envy. Some of them see a potential collaborator in their revolutionary plans. Finnerty has had such and similar plans and ideas before, so it is not very hard for those revolutionaries to get him on their side, but Paul is a more difficult case. Finally, he gets drunk with them and that is a more sober state for him than if he were really sober because he starts thinking of things he never did think before. He never needed to this was, to sum it up, the first time he even came to the other side of the river to the ordinary people.
And this is the key moment of the turning point of the entire story. Now when he knows the mean people’s thoughts and feelings of needlessness and hopelessness, he starts to think about the system of the society and social life, about his professional career, which he starts to see as not as important as it seemed to him before, and about the revolution. He starts planning. Firstly he wants to remain only an internal revolutionary. He buys one of the last farms in the country and he tells his wife to come to live there with him. She is happy because she has always liked the rural-like way of decorating interiors. But when she finds this is not rural-like but really rural, she does not feel happy at all. Since Paul insists on staying a farmer, she wants to divorce him. He quiets her down and they live separately he in the farm and she in the city house.
And then the plot events begin to move. In those days the revolutionary group called the Ghost Shirt Brotherhood start acting. Firstly, they just gather new members and make plans. The leadership of the industry learns about them and tries to spy on them to destroy them as a saboteur group. Paul is invited to see Kroner, his superior. He learns he is the one for the seat of the recently deceased state industrial general manager, so he would come after him to that excellent job. Paul is not interested in this any longer, so he tells Kroner he will stop working in industry. He means he is disgusted by the system but Kroner cannot understand it and thinks Paul just wants to become a secret counterspy to spy against the revolutionary group. So he manages a “shadow firing” of Dr Proteus so that Paul could work as a spy among the Ghost’s Shirt Brethren.
The Brethren learn about this firing and try to make Paul a real member of their Brotherhood. They think he would not come spontaneously so they kidnap him. They have created a whole network of local Brotherhoods, which are centrally ruled from Ilium. By the way, one of the highest members of the Cell is Edward Finnerty. The Illium Cell composes an official letter to the government, which is in fact like one of the proclamations that start wars. It is an ultimate message, it clearly says the people are bored and disgusted by current system and that they want a change. They would use violence if the government would not accept their requests. The letter is scribed by Paul Proteus’s name although he had absolutely nothing to do with all of it. In fact he is being hidden in a cell as a prisoner, and he is only an Official Head of the Brotherhood just a puppet to be shown to people. From this you can see that the idea of revolution was not bad at all, but it turned worse with the people’s want for might.
So it happens. The government does not accept their request, which means violence is used. The common people go mad; most of them encouraged by strong drinking, and destroy machinery in general. They do not really care about which machine is really bad and which might be helpful or needful, they do not distinguish, so they just smash all down. The army makes a counterstrike, so the revolution is finished soon by violence. Paul does not belong anywhere now. The revolutionaries blame him for the bad success the industrial bosses treat him like a traitor and his own wife who said she loved him divorces him and marries his career-enemy. All his life is beaten, he has nothing, and his university degree is taken from him so that now he has no qualification. The government leads a trial against him that is broadcast by the television, and they turn all the facts upside down and inside out so that Paul looks like the worst and meanest. So that any revolution looks like a complete nonsense, and so that the present system is the best.