Player Piano (novel)

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Player Piano
First edition, hardcover
Author Kurt Vonnegut
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science Fiction
Publisher Charles Scribner's Sons
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)

Player Piano, author Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, was published in 1952. It is a dystopia of automation,[1] describing the dereliction it causes in the quality of life.[1] The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. This widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class—the engineers and managers who keep society running—and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines. The book uses irony and sentimentality, which were to become hallmarks developed further in Vonnegut's later works.[1]


In a 1973 interview Vonnegut discussed his inspiration to write the book:[2]

I was working for General Electric at the time, right after World War II, and I saw a milling machine for cutting the rotors on jet engines, gas turbines. This was a very expensive thing for a machinist to do, to cut what is essentially one of those Brâncuși forms. So they had a computer-operated milling machine built to cut the blades, and I was fascinated by that. This was in 1949 and the guys who were working on it were foreseeing all sorts of machines being run by little boxes and punched cards. Player Piano was my response to the implications of having everything run by little boxes. The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn't a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.

In the same interview he acknowledges that he "cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin's We."[2]


Cover of Utopia 14, as the novel was titled for a 1954 release.

A player piano is a modified piano that "plays itself". The piano keys move according to a pattern of holes punched in an unwinding scroll. Unlike a music synthesizer, the instrument actually produces the sound itself, with the keys moving up and down, driving hammers that strike the strings. Like its counterpart, a player piano can be played by hand as well. When a scroll is run through the ghost-operated instrument, the movement of its keys produce the illusion that an invisible performer is playing the instrument.

Vonnegut uses the player piano as a metaphor to represent how even the most simple of activities, such as teaching oneself how to play the piano in one's spare time, has been replaced by machines instead of people. Early in the book, Paul Proteus's friend and future member of the Ghost Shirt Society, Ed Finnerty, is shown manually playing a player piano, suggesting the idea of humans reclaiming their animus from the machines.

Science fiction branding[edit]

This satirical take on industrialization and the rhetoric of General Electric[3] and the big corporations, which discussed arguments very topical in the post-war United States, was instead advertised by the publisher with the more innocuous and marketable label of "science fiction", a genre that was booming in mass popular culture in the 1950s.

Player Piano was later released by Bantam Books in 1954 under the title Utopia 14[1] in an effort to drive sales with readers of Science Fiction.


Player Piano is set in the future after a fictional third world war. During the 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 who is 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 the metamorphosis of Paul from being within the system to being against the system. At the beginning of the novel, Paul displays a sense of dissatisfaction with the industrial system and his contribution to society. Symbolically, he reflects on his colleagues' desire to destroy an old building, once a part of Edison's factory, which he saves and instead keeps it alive to store new machinery. Looking for salvation from a yet unknown plight, he gets a knock at his door, figuratively speaking, and Ed Finnerty, an old friend whom Paul has always held in high regard, informs him he has quit his important engineer 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 Finnerty instantly 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 by the land with his wife, Anita, but Anita was highly disgusted by Paul's wishes to radically change their life styles. She temporarily convinced Paul to stay in his position, and to continue to rival two other engineers, Dr. Shepherd and Dr. Gavel, for a more prominent position in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Paul was nominated by the chief engineer and manager, Dr. Kroner, to be captain of the "Blue" team for an annual competition for high class engineers known as "the Meadows." After rumors began circulating of Paul's disloyalty to the system and suspicious activity during the hosting of the Meadows, Paul determined that, with or without Anita, it was necessary to join his friend Finnerty, among others, to stop the government's "system" of having machines replace humans. He quits his job and is captured by the "Ghost Shirt Society" he is forced to join as their leader but only in name. Paul's father was the first "National, Industrial, Commercial Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director". As his lengthy title suggests, Dr. George Proteus had almost complete control over the nation’s economy and was more powerful than the President of the United States. 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. During a 6 month rebellion, the Ghost Shirt Society began to use force, as was necessary, to overthrow the government. However, the citizens of Ilium, ignorant due to abundant propaganda, began to rebuild the machines, and alerted the authorities. Paul, Finnerty, Lasher, and other members acknowledged that at least they had tried to stop the government's "system."[4]


Paul Proteus
Paul Proteus, the novel's protagonist, is the head of industry in Ilium, New York. He is caught in the middle of the conflict, forced to choose whether to continue his work and move on to a future of fame and success, or become the figurehead leader of a rebellion against the machine society. His father was an influential and important figure in the transition to an automated society and thus Paul finds himself in an interesting position. He is to be given a big promotion: to head Engineer at the Pittsburgh plant, the biggest center of production in the Eastern United States. His boss, Kroner, knew his father and had always groomed Paul for success, which complicates matters for Paul as his father died when he was young and he does not want to disappoint the father figure who is trying to help him.
Anita is Paul's wife. "Of all the people on the north side of the river [the rich ones], Anita was the only one whose contempt for those in Homestead [the poor side of the river] was laced with active hatred. She was also the only wife on the north side who had never been to college at all. [...] If Paul were ever moved to be extremely cruel to her, the cruelest thing he could do, he knew, 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."[5] She is described as an attractive woman with a desire for her husband's career advancement, to a fault. She cannot bear children, although she and Paul married quickly when it seemed she was pregnant.[6]
Kroner is Paul's boss and one of the most important men in the country. He treats all of his underlings as if they are his children and he even refers to his wife as "Mom" when speaking of her to Paul. His Victorian mansion was "one more affirmation of Kroner's belief that nothing of value changed; that what was once true is always true; that truths were few and simple; and that a man needed no knowledge beyond these truths to deal wisely and justly with any problem whatsoever."[7] He believes with every fiber of his being the system of automation in place is the best thing for the country.[citation needed]
Ed Finnerty
Ed Finnerty is Paul's old best friend. They had come up through the Engineering ranks together and they had grown close. Their friendship waned when Finnerty took a high ranking position in Washington, D.C. and they lost touch. Finnerty had always been somewhat of a nut, never caring what others thought of him in the least, and his poor hygiene is discussed at length in the start of the book. It is Finnerty that first plants the seeds of revolution in Paul's mind.
Dr. Shepherd
Shepherd was once Paul's friend with Finnerty when all three were young engineers. However, when the book begins, Shepherd is jealous of Paul's success, since Paul is his boss. Shepherd constantly treats Paul as a rival, though Paul never considers him to be a threat. Interestingly enough, Anita turns to him later in the book when it appears as though Paul's career is over.
Rev. James J. Lasher
Lasher was in a bar that Paul happened to go into to buy Irish whiskey and struck up a conversation. Lasher is the secret head of the Ghost Shirt organization.
The Shah of Bratpuhr
The Shah is the spiritual leader of the Kolhouri, a sect with six million adherents. He is led on a tour of the United States in a minor subplot to learn from the most powerful nation in the world how to improve the lives of the people in his mountain kingdom. He has trouble understanding the American culture, as the closest equivalent to working men in his nation are takaru, or slaves. The Shah is assisted by an interpreter named Khashdrahr Miasma.


Reviewing the novel for a genre science fiction audience, Groff Conklin declared it "a biting, vividly alive and very effectively understated anti-Utopia."[8] Boucher and McComas named it to their "year's best" list, describing it as "Human, satirical, and exciting; . . . by far the most successful of the recent attempts to graft science fiction onto the serious 'straight' novel."[9] They praised Vonnegut for "blending skilfully a psychological study of the persistent human problems in a mechanistically 'ideal' society, a vigorous melodramatic story-line, and a sharp Voltairean satire.[10]

Player Piano was nominated for the International Fantasy Award in 1953.[11]


In 2009, produced an audio version of Player Piano, narrated by Christian Rummel, as part of its Modern Vanguard line of audiobooks.


  1. ^ a b c d Stableford, Brian (1993). "Vonnegut, Kurt Jr.". In John Clute & Peter Nicholls (eds.). The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction (2nd edition ed.). Orbit, London. p. 1289. ISBN 1-85723-124-4. 
  2. ^ a b Playboy Magazine interview with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., July 1973. [1]
  3. ^ Interview from Bagombo Snuff Box [2], quote: "It is a lampoon on GE. I bit the hand that used to feed me."
  4. ^ Marvin, Thomas F.. Kurt Vonnegut: A Critical Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 2002. Print.
  5. ^ Chapter XVIII, pp.150-1
  6. ^ Chapter I, p.2
  7. ^ Chapter XII, p. 108
  8. ^ "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1953, p.96
  9. ^ "Recommended Reading," F&SF, March 1953, p.93
  10. ^ "Recommended Reading," F&SF, April 1953, p.98
  11. ^ Locus Index to SF Awards

Additional reading[edit]

1. Marvin, Thomas F.. Kurt Vonnegut: A Critical Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 2002. Print.

2. Seed, David. "Mankind vs. Machines: The Technological Dystopia in Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano". Impossibility Fiction: Alternativity, Extrapolation, Speculation. Ed. Littlewood, Derek, Stockwell, Peter. Atalanta, Georgia: Editions Rodopi B.V.. 1996. Print.

External links[edit]