Player Piano (novel)
|Author||Kurt Vonnegut Jr.|
|Publisher||Charles Scribner's Sons|
|August 18, 1952|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
Player Piano is the first novel by American writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr., published in 1952. The novel depicts a dystopia of automation partly inspired by the author's time working at General Electric, describing the negative impact technology can have on quality of life. The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. The 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the engineers and managers, who keep society running, and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines.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.
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 workforce 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 The novel begins ten years after the war when most factory workers have been replaced by machines.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, New York into "The Homestead," where every person, not a manager or an engineer lives, and the other side of the river, where all the engineers and the managers live.
Player Piano develops two parallel plotlines that converge only briefly and then insubstantially, at the beginning and the end of the novel. The more prominent plotline follows the protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus (referred to as Paul), an intelligent, 35-year-old factory manager of Ilium Works. The secondary plotline 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 plotlines 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 on it. Paul, for all intents and purposes, is the living embodiment of what a man within the system should strive to be, and the Shah is a visitor from a very different culture and so applies a very different context to whatever he sees on his tour.
The main plotline follows Paul's development from an uncritical cog in the system to one of its outspoken critics. Paul's father, George, was the first "National, Industrial, Commercial Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director." George had almost complete control over the nation's economy and was more powerful than the President of the United States, who by then had effectively become a puppet. Paul has inherited his father's reputation and social status but harbors a vague dissatisfaction with the industrial system and his contribution to society. His struggle with that 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, DC. 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, Lasher, with a M.A. in anthropology, who puts into words the unfairness of the system that the two engineers have only vaguely sensed. Paul eventually learns that Lasher is the leader of a rebel group known as the "Ghost Shirt Society," though 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 purchases a rundown farm, managed by an elderly heir of the prior owners. Paul's intention is to start a new life by living off the land with his wife, Anita, but Anita is disgusted by Paul's wishes to change their lifestyle radically. Paul and Anita's relationship is one of emotional distance and personal disagreements. She and Paul had married quickly when it seemed that she was pregnant, but it turned out that Anita was barren and that 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 thing he 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."
After rumors of Paul's disloyalty to the system and suspicious activity during the hosting of "the Meadows," an annual competition for high class engineers, begin circulating, Paul determines that with or without Anita, he must work with his friend Finnerty, among others, to stop the socioeconomic "system" of having machines replace humans. He quits his job and is captured by the "Ghost Shirt Society" in which he is made the public figurehead of the organization although the position is merely nominal. By his father's success, Paul's name is famous among the citizens and so the organization intends to use his name to its advantage by making him the false 'leader' to gain publicity. In the first Ghost Shirt Society meeting Paul attends, the police raid it and capture Paul.
Paul is put on public trial but is freed as the Ghost Shirt Society and the general population begins to riot, destroying the automated factories. The mob, once unleashed, goes further than the Ghost Shirt leaders had planned, destroying both food production plants and 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 they surrender themselves to the military.
The automation of industry and the effect that it has on society are the predominant themes of Player Piano. It is "a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will." More specifically, it delves into a theme to which Vonnegut returns, "a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines. The problem is this: How to love people who have no use." Unlike much dystopian fiction, the novel's society was created by indifference, both of the populace and the technology that replaced it. As such, it is the sense of purposelessness of those living in a capitalistic society that has outgrown a need for them that must be rectified.
Mankind's blind faith in technology and its usually-disastrous effect on society as well as the dehumanization of the poor or oppressed later became common themes throughout Vonnegut's work. Throughout his life, Vonnegut continued to believe the novel's themes were of relevance to society, writing, for example, in 1983 that the novel was becoming "more timely with each passing day."
Player Piano displays the beginnings of the idiosyncratic style that Vonnegut developed and employed throughout much of his career. It has early inklings of the hallmark Vonnegutian flair of using meta-fiction, such as when a writer's wife describes her husband's dilemma to the Shah of Bratpuhr in the back of the limousine: that the writer's "anti-machine" novel cannot get a passing "readability quotient" under the reading machine's scoring algorithm. However, the fourth wall does not get broken, as in later writings. His style of self-contained chapters "of no more than five hundred words, often as few as fifty," which would come to define his writing, had yet to be developed.
In a 1973 interview Vonnegut discussed his inspiration to write the book:
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.
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 roll is run through the 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. The book's most tragic character is Rudy Hertz, the machinist who was the prototype recorded by the machines. They are player pianos replicating his physical motions.
This satirical take on industrialization and the rhetoric of General Electric and the big corporations, which discussed arguments very topical in the postwar 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. Vonnegut, surprised by that reception, wrote, "I learned from reviewers that I was a science-fiction author. I didn't know that." He was distressed because he felt that science fiction was shoved in a drawer which "many serious critics regularly mistake... for a urinal" because "[t]he feeling persists that no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works."
Player Piano was later released in paperback by Bantam Books in 1954 under the title Utopia 14 in an effort to drive sales with readers of science fiction. Paul Proteus' trial was dramatized in the 1972 TV movie Between Time and Timbuktu, which presented elements from various works by Vonnegut.
In 2009, Audible.com produced an audio version of Player Piano, narrated by Christian Rummel, as part of its Modern Vanguard line of audiobooks.
In the Italian translation, Player Piano is rendered as Piano meccanico, a double-entendre, which, without any other words in the phrase, can mean either "player piano" or "mechanical plan."
The science fiction anthologist Groff Conklin reviewed the novel in Galaxy Science Fiction, declaring it "a biting, vividly alive and very effectively understated anti-Utopia." The founding editors of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas, named Player Piano 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." They praised Vonnegut for "blending skillfully a psychological study of the persistent human problems in a mechanistically 'ideal' society, a vigorous melodramatic story-line, and a sharp Voltairean satire.
- "Books Published Today". The New York Times: 15. August 18, 1952.
- Stableford, Brian (1993). "Vonnegut, Kurt Jr.". In John Clute; Peter Nicholls (eds.). The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction (2nd ed.). Orbit, London. p. 1289. ISBN 1-85723-124-4.
- Chapter I, p.2
- Chapter XVIII, pp.150-1
- Vonnegut, Kurt (1974). Wampeters, Foma & Granfaloons. The Dial Press. p. 1.
- Vonnegut, Kurt (1965). God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Dell. p. 183.
- Grossman, Edward (July 1974). "Vonnegut & His Audience". Commentary.
- Westbrook, Perry D. "Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: Overview." Contemporary Novelists. Susan Windisch Brown. 6th ed. New York: St. James Press, 1996.
- Ford, Martin (2015). The Rise of the Robots. One World. p. 32. ISBN 9781780747491.
- "Kurt Vonnegut Interview". Playboy. July 1973. Archived from the original on February 10, 2009. Retrieved September 26, 2015.
- Interview from Bagombo Snuff Box , quote: "It is a lampoon on GE. I bit the hand that used to feed me."
- Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. (1972). Between Time and Timbuktu or Prometheus-5. Script by David O'Dell. Delta Books.
- "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf," Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1953, p.96
- "Recommended Reading," F&SF, March 1953, p.93
- "Recommended Reading," F&SF, April 1953, p.98
- Locus Index to SF Awards
- Marvin, Thomas F.. Kurt Vonnegut: A Critical Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 2002. Print.
- Seed, David. "Mankind vs. Machines: The Technological Dystopia in Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano". Impossibility Fiction: Alternativity, Extrapolation, Speculation. Ed. Littlewood, Derek, Stockwell, Peter. Atlanta, Georgia: Editions Rodopi B.V.. 1996. Print.