Player Piano is a dystopian novel that tells the story of Dr. Paul Proteus, manager of the Ilium Works. The world of the novel is highly mechanized; consequently, society has become sharply divided into engineers, who invent and maintain the machines, and everyone else. Unemployment is high because machines do everything, even if people don't want them to. When Dr. Proteus is caught up in a rebel movement to overthrow the machines, he discovers the inevitability of progress. This novel examines themes of powerlessness, dignity, and modern society.
Player Piano is set in the near future after a third world war. While most Americans were fighting overseas, the nation's managers and engineers faced a depleted work force and responded by developing ingenious automated systems that allowed the factories to operate with only a few workers. The novel begins ten years after the war, when most factory workers have been replaced by machines. The bifurcation of the population is represented by the division of Ilium into "The Homestead", where every person who is neither a manager nor an engineer lives, and the other side of the river, where all the engineers and managers live.
Player Piano develops two parallel plot lines that converge only briefly, and insubstantially so, at the beginning and the end of the novel. The more prominent plot line follows the protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus (referred to as Paul), an intelligent, thirty-five-year-old factory manager of Ilium Works. The ancillary plot line follows the American tour of the Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of six million residents in a distant, underdeveloped nation. The purpose of the two plot lines is to give two perspectives of the system: one from an insider who is emblematic of the system, and one from an outsider looking in. Paul, for all intents and purposes, is the living embodiment of what a man within the system should strive to be, while the Shah is a visitor from a very different culture, and therefore applies a very different context to happenings he sees on his tour.
The main plot line follows Paul's development from an uncritical cog in the system to one of its outspoken critics. Paul's father was the first "National, Industrial, Commercial Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director." Dr. George Proteus had almost complete control over the nation’s economy and was more powerful than the President of the United States. Paul has inherited his father's reputation and social status, yet harbors a vague dissatisfaction with the industrial system and his contribution to society. His struggle with this unnameable distress is heightened when Ed Finnerty, an old friend whom Paul has always held in high regard, informs him he has quit his important engineering job in Washington D.C. Paul and Finnerty visit a bar in the "Homestead" section of town, where workers who have been displaced by machines live out their meaningless lives in mass-produced houses. There, they meet an Episcopal minister named Lasher, with an M.A. in anthropology, who puts into words the unfairness of the system that the two engineers have only vaguely sensed. They soon learn that Lasher is the leader of a rebel group known as the "Ghost Shirt Society," and Finnertyinstantly takes up with him. Paul is not bold enough to make a clean break, as Finnerty has done, until his superiors ask him to betray Finnerty and Lasher. However, Paul secretly purchased a run down, under the table farm, managed by an elderly heir of the prior owners. Paul's intention was to start a new life by living off the land with his wife, Anita, but Anita was highly disgusted by Paul's wishes to radically change their life styles. Paul and Anita's relationship is one of emotional distance and personal disagreements. She and Paul had married quickly when it seemed she was pregnant, though it turned out that Anita was barren and it was just a hysterical pregnancy. "Of all the people on the north side of the river, Anita was the only one whose contempt for those in Homestead was laced with active hatred... If Paul were ever moved to be extremely cruel to her, the cruelest thinghe could do... would be to point out to her why she hated [Homesteaders] as she did: if he hadn't married her, this was where she'd be, what she'd be." She temporarily convinced Paul to stay in his position, and to continue to compete with two other engineers, Dr. Shepherd and Dr. Garth, for a moreprominent position in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
After rumors begin circulating of Paul's disloyalty to the system and suspicious activity during the hosting of "the Meadows" (an annual competition for high class engineers), Paul determines that, with or without Anita, it was necessary to join his friend Finnerty, among others, to stop the socio-economic "system" of having machines replace humans. He quits his job and is captured by the "Ghost Shirt Society," where he is made the public figurehead of the organization, although this position is merely nominal. Through his father's success, Paul's name is famous among the citizens, so the organization intends to use his name to their advantage by making him the false 'leader' to gain publicity. Paul is arrested and put on public trial, but is freed as the Ghost Shirt Society and the general population begin to riot, destroying the automated factories.
The mob, once unleashed, goes farther than the Ghost Shirt leaders had planned, destroying food production plants as well as the superfluous plants. Despite the brief and impressive success of the rebellion, the military quickly surrounds the town, and the citizenry, used to the comforts of the system, begin to rebuild the machines of their own volition. Paul, Finnerty, Lasher, and other members of the Ghost Shirt Society acknowledge that at least they had tried to stop the government's system, before surrendering themselves to the military.