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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 280

Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction novel, Player Piano, is set in a future world and centers around a man named Paul Proteus, an exceptionally smart engineer and manager of a company called Ilium Works, where intelligent machines are created to do the work of humans. Paul is running the machines that rule the country, but he is concerned about the state of the nation and the plight of the people whose work has been devalued and whose jobs have been replaced. When Paul is reunited with an old friend, Finnerty, he leaves his job at Ilium Works and joins his friend in a rebellion against the system. Believing that Paul is really on their side and that Finnerty is part of the Great Shirt Society, an organization that is working to obliterate the machines and give power back to the people, Paul’s bosses at Ilium works recruit him to be a spy. Paul rejects the offer, but his bosses continue to believe he is spying for them.

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When Paul goes to a bar one night, his drink is drugged, and the finds himself in the headquarters of the Great Shirt Society, a group of rebels who recruit him as their leader. Paul comes to believe wholeheartedly in the Society’s mission, and the rebellion that ensues leads to the destruction of machines all over the country. Paul is tried for treason, and the rebellion escalates, although the rebel leaders begin to realize that they are destroying machines only to rebuild them, and that they lack a vision for what they want to accomplish. Realizing that their rebellion is fruitless, the rebels surrender to the authorities and abandon their cause.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, belongs to a category referred to as dystopian fiction. Such works depict a future in which scientific advances create a new, nightmarish world. Vonnegut’s setting is the fictional city of Ilium after World War III. Society is run by an elite of manager-engineers. They all live on one side of the river. On the other side of the river live those whose jobs have been taken by automation. They are supported by the state on pensions or in make-work employment. Without jobs or purpose, these displaced persons lack identity and feel that their lives are meaningless.

Paul Proteus is the son of a former Works Manager and seems capable of moving into the highest levels of management himself, but he is troubled by doubts. His wife, Anita, pushes him to advance, but many evenings he slips into old clothes and goes to a bar on the other side of the river. In the bar is a player piano, a key symbol in this novel, as it represents perhaps an early automated replacement of a human.

Increasingly torn between dissatisfaction and pressure to advance, Paul considers the option of buying a farm and opting out of the conflict. Anita rejects that idea. Paul continues to be like his mythical namesake, Proteus, who survived by changing his identity, especially when the company makes him pretend to be a traitor and spy on the rebel Ghost Shirt Society.

Paul is tried as a traitor, and at last forced to choose. He chooses human worth and dignity over the technologically managed society. Paul becomes the Messiah of the Ghost Shirt Society, which stages a nationwide revolution that quickly fails. The novel ends with Proteus marching toward his captors. His revolution has failed, but ironically that validates Proteus’ choice of fallibility as an essential human quality over the dehumanizing infallibility of technology. He at last discovers what he believes in and arrives at a consistent identity for himself.

The novel focuses on Paul Proteus’ search for identity, and the same issue impacts most other characters. Repeatedly Vonnegut suggests identity is closely tied to function or employment. Without work, people question their purpose. Paul’s wife Anita seeks her identity as a woman by following glossy magazines’ suggestions for how a company wife and hostess should behave. Another character gives himself an identity as an expert at watching television with the sound off and guessing what the singer is singing. Player Piano foresees the human cost, not only in lost income but also in loss of self-worth and purpose, that afflict the thousands who are displaced by technology.

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