It’s 1952 and a debut novel by a 23-year-old writer is published by Delacorte Press. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano about a near-future society is categorized as science fiction and doesn’t get much attention.
I first read Player Piano many years ago. Probably some time soon after college, when I was devouring his other books, such as Cat’s Cradle; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse Five. I read Player Piano then too, but my copy disappeared in one of my moves.
Recently my son Andrew mentioned that Player Piano has parallels to today’s society, made up of an elite, educated upper class and an underemployed lower class. I decided it was time to take another look at Vonnegut. I am amazed by how striking the parallels are to today’s society. And how prescient Vonnegut was, as a young writer/publicist working for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He recreates that milieu in Player Piano as Ilium, home of the Ilium Works, “where machines hummed and whirred and clicked, and made parts for baby carriages and bottle caps, motorcycles and refrigerators, television sets and tricycles….”
The time is after the third world war, which was followed by riots, and a government clampdown on saboteurs. The machines developed in the wartime miracle now control every aspect of life and no humans are needed to operate them.
The hero of Player Piano is Dr. Paul Proteus, a brilliant engineer and head of Ilium Works. He’s mostly happy with his life as an engineer and manager and hopes for a promotion to run the Pittsburgh Works. So does his wife Anita. They’re part of the executive/engineer class who live a privileged life with high incomes and lavish homes and possessions.
The others? Since people are no longer needed to operate or control the machines, they are given the choice of serving in the Army or working for the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps—the so-called Reeks and Wrecks, who fix bridges and fill potholes. The government provides everyone with an adequate income for home, food, clothing, healthcare, education—everything a family needs to survive. Perhaps you think people are happy to have all their needs provided without doing any real work? But no, people are depressed and desperate to do real meaningful work.
As one writer said about Player Piano, “The rotten core buried under a façade of shining machines is that this society has made humanity superfluous, sucked all meaning out of the world, and replaced humanist values with a machine ethic predicated upon a new holy trinity: ‘Efficiency, Economy, and Quality.’” Sound familiar?
Even human relations are mechanized, Vonnegut thinks. Paul talks about his wife being skilled at “the mechanics of marriage.” On their phone calls, Anita ends by telling Paul she loves him and he robotically replies, “I love you, Anita.”
Paul occasionally visits a certain bar in Homestead, the area where the Reeks and Wrecks live. He becomes aware of their unhappiness as he talks to workers who have ideas and skills they’d like to contribute, even though they’re unwanted.
Nevertheless, he loves the music of his machines. “The lathe groups, the tenors…. the welders, the baritones…. the punch presses, the basses.” He has nagging doubts about his life, which he tries not to acknowledge, until some dramatic events take place at the executive retreat on an island called The Meadows. It’s the kind of event you’d expect it to be: lots of team sports, structured camaraderie, controlled drinking and tight scheduling, announced by the omnipresent loudspeaker. Paul’s future life changes as a result and he ends up joining the revolution concocted by the underground Ghost Shirt Society, a group of radicals who want to destroy key machinery and restore dignity to human work.
There’s a second thread to Player Piano. A representative of the U.S. Department of State is escorting two foreign visitors around to various American cities. The Shah of Bratpuhr and his translator express an outsider’s skepticism of the wonders of American society. It’s Vonnegut’s technique, which he uses in other books, of showing a skewed perspective on our lives.
Player Piano isn’t a diatribe against technology. It’s a critique of corporatized society, of adopting technological change without any thought for social or political change. We can have machines control everything without any human operators, so let’s just do that.
Vonnegut’s writing is a mix of satire and black humor, social and political critique. He’s hard to categorize, which probably didn’t help his reputation among critics who find it more convenient to pigeonhole artists and writers. He’s more likely to be recognized for his literary genius since his death in 2007 gave critics a reason to fully explore his life and oeuvre.
So I highly recommend a reading or rereading of Player Piano for a break from your daily news and political blather. If you’re thinking well, this sounds interesting, but I don’t like sci-fi. Player Piano isn’t sci-fi. There are no aliens with weird-shaped heads, no humans with amorphous sexual abilities, no strange worlds defined by frost and desert. This is the U.S., populated by people like you and me. Furthermore, it’s a readable 340 pages, not a doorstop tome. You can buy it here or here or borrow it from your public library.
And now, it’s time to reread Vonnegut’s acknowledged masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five.