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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

To understand Player Piano, we need look no further than its protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus. At first, it seems that he has an ideal life: he is the highest-paid worker at Ilium Works, and he is married to a beautiful and charming woman (Anita). He is a man of his time, and even his ambition is "ideal" in a sense. However, we soon start to see the cracks. Not only is his wife barren, she is also cheating on him with a man who wants to oust him from Ilium Works. As the novel progresses, he starts to experience increasingly severe doubts about his ideal job and ideal ambition: he begins to see all that's wrong with an apparently perfect post–Second Industrial Revolution world in which everyone is either a "doctor" of some sort or an unskilled worker, working either on the roads or in the nominal army. However, even though Paul is fascinated by a life of manual labor, he is not entirely convinced by the lifestyle and ethos of the ex-proletarians any more than he is by the lifestyle and ethos of the bigwigs at Ilium Works.

He is, thus, a character who is deeply conflicted and torn in two opposite directions without being completely convinced by either. It's this conflict that makes him such a perfect microcosmic representation of society at large, both in the 1960s and now. We still face similar concerns and dilemmas about the nature of scientific progress and what it means for morality and politics. This is a book that lays out, quite chillingly, the consequences of the ideology of local optimization and of efficiency as an end in itself. Machines are more efficient than humans, and so they replace them, irrespective of the consequences for humanity at large.

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