Kurt Vonnegut had his debut novel, Player Piano, published in 1952. Much of western civilisation was still in a period of recovery following the devastation of World War II. Vonnegut was an active serviceman and was captured in Europe. Post war, he became a technical writer and worked in PR for General Electric before becoming a journalist. The post-war period directly informs what is a brilliantly written if flawed novel.
Upmost in Vonnegut’s mind could have been the result of the war. Was the life of the average American worth the fighting? Where do we go from here? And the classic staple of science fiction, where is man’s place now surrounded by machines that can do a job better than him? I say man, because Player Piano is set very much in the man’s world of the time. Men are managers and engineers – the ones who run America – and women are wives and secretaries. Our hero is high-flying Dr. Paul Proteus who is head of industry in New York. His wife, Anita, is a social climber who detests her roots. His secretary is Dr. Katharine Finch. Yep, the females need a doctorate to serve their masters.
The novel is set after a third world war with most Americans fighting abroad. In order to keep the country running, the managers and engineers made machines to replace the men in the factories. Unlike the reality of the WWII, in this fiction, women cannot even do the work of the missing men. Now, with the war over, most men have no work and those live in segregation away from the managers and engineers. As well as following Paul’s story – the main thread of the text – Vonnegut also presents the perspective of the visiting Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of six million residents in a distant, underdeveloped nation. Via his translator, he struggles to understand the American life-style, even to the point of believing that a super-computer might be a deity, as it can answer any and all questions (although it cannot talk).
Paul begins the novel understanding his place in the world but soon, thanks to a few unrelated events, finds himself dissatisfied, despite his lofty position. He comes across an old friend, Ed Finnerty who has quit his own lofty position. Ed and Paul visit the Homestead, where the disenfranchised live. They go to a bar where some truths are spelled out to Paul. The Homesteaders have meaningless lives and a minister, Lasher, helps solidify Paul’s doubts in the system he manages. There is a rebellion on the cards and Ed joins up. Paul wants to but doesn’t have the courage. Initially. Paul’s superiors ask him to betray his old friend which spurs on his discontent. He buys a run-down farm hoping to persuade Anita into a simpler life but she rejects him.
As Paul has been groomed for a superior position it becomes clear that he wants to reject it, but he is still wary of the competition for it, and for his wife’s affections. It comes to a head in a corporate away-day scenario where Paul must chose the comfortable life or battle against the system where men are rendered pointless by machinery.
In the denouement, Vonnegut shows the reader that even after given a choice and a chance at a simpler life-style, mankind will condemn itself in the name of technological progress.
Remember that this was written and published pretty much before the computer age and you might think that Player Piano is remarkably prescient. The gadget of the title being a piano that plays itself it perhaps symptomatic of reliance we now have with technology. All our stuff no-longer relies on us users – other to change the occasional battery. I remember growing up in the 1970s and 1980s when car engines were tinkered with every Sunday morning, garages and sheds were a hive of activity with repairs and improvements, garments were sowed and jumpers knitted. Today, everything works or is replaced if it doesn’t. We throw things away rather than repairing. We have the society (albeit not as divided) that Vonnegut feared.
The fiction itself is almost excellent, let down only by a slightly weakened ending to the middle third that could have been a bit tighter in execution – my mind wandered a bit during the Meadows section as points were hammered home repeatedly. However the final act and coda more than made up for it. The last few pages are genius. I found the fluidity of narrative and writing style remarkable for a debut novel; but in reality of course, Vonnegut was a seasoned writer confident in his subject matter. The characterisation was interesting, watching Paul make choices that would seem to turn his world upside down – and not for the better in the world he lived in. His motivations were realistic and sympathetic. The plot never felt forced or unbelievable. The placement of both the female characters and the machines mean that the novel is a sharp satire even today. Women might do better in education but are still paid less and are massively under-represented in senior management (although I personally suspect this is because they aren’t as psychopathically egotistical as most high-achieving men – and probably through choice). Anita’s character is sadly a one-dimensional caricature but makes a valid point about position of the trophy wife, while Katharine shows to have some depth. Meanwhile, the Shah appears to have some black comic purpose, basically shouting at America that ‘you’re all stupid, can’t you see what you’re doing!’ Which I like.
As with all the best dystopian science fiction, Vonnegut presents a seemingly perfect utopia – a one that western nations are even now apparently striving for; the worship of technology – and tears it down with well-observed satire and effortless prose fiction. I’m surprised Player Piano isn’t regarded higher than it is, and should be spoken about in the same context as Brave New World and the like.