[There are significant spoilers for the entire novel in this review.]
Title: Player Piano
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publication Date: 1952
Producer: Audible Modern Vanguard
Narrated by: Christian Rummel
Recording Time: 11 hours, 31 minutes
Sometime in a not-too-distant future, humanity has given machines its decision-making authority and most of its jobs. Player Piano follows a couple of parallel stories, set in that time period, wherein people, who are in some sense wealthier and better cared for than ever before, grapple with feelings of purposeless and spiritual poverty.
The primary character of the novel is a man named Doctor Paul Proteus who serves as the head of the Ilium plant, one of many plants across the United States which emerged in the aftermath of the Third World War. The plants are almost fully automated, other than a few people who remain around to design and repair the machines. Rigid social classes have emerged, based upon IQ and aptitude tests administered by machines, and as a result wealth inequality is also high though even the poor have their basic needs met. The remaining high-IQ workers comprise the engineer-class, and everyone else, who work either in the the army or the Reeks and Reclamation Corps.
Paul Proteus is the son of a famous manager father, and he has been groomed his entire life to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, we see that Paul has concerns about the new machine-led world. After an encounter with a former colleague, Ed Finnerty, Paul becomes even more discontent. Paul’s wife, Anita, who is a member of the upper class by virtue of her marriage to Paul, is a vocal supporter of the machine-run society and she wants Paul to stay on a path that will lead him to a promotion based in Pittsburgh.
Paul does not heed his wife. Instead, he spends time in Homestead, the area for the lower-class citizens, where he comes to like the lives of the people there and develops an increasingly strong belief that the world is treating them unjustly. He decides that he wants to quit his job, having accumulated enough money to retire at a young age, so he buys an old farm, in the anticipation that he will soon quit, with the intention that he and Anita will live there. Anita is uninterested in this plan and encourages him to continue pursuing the Pittsburgh promotion.
In a separate storyline, a man named Doctor Halyard, an Ambassador, is giving The Shah of Bratpuhr a tour of the United States. The Shah is interested in the people of the United States and their lack of spirituality. He also keeps calling citizens, slaves, in his own native language despite multiple corrections on that point from Halyard. Halyard tries to convince The Shah that lifestyles within the U.S. are happy and healthy, the Shah seems skeptical.
At a corporate retreat, Paul is told by his bosses that due to his recent behavior, which seems disloyal to the system, he has been selected to infiltrate the Ghost Shirt Society, an organization run by Paul’s friend Finnerty, and a man he met briefly in Homestead named Lasher, a preacher. As part of the ruse, Paul is fired and labeled a saboteur. Paul is not too displeased by his firing, as he was planning to quite anyway, and is more indignant that he is expected to spy on his friend. After some time living outside of the system, including a visit to Homestead, Paul is kidnapped, given truth serum, and finds himself with the Society. The group led by Finnerty and Lasher plan to destroy the machines. After a while, Paul is apprehended and is placed on trial to defend his actions with the Society. During his trial, the revolution breaks out.
Halyard and the Shah, in an armored limousine, find themselves in the middle of the revolution. The machines at the Ilium plant are destroyed, but not everyone around the country shares their success. Finnerty, Lasher, and Paul notice that the same people who destroyed the machines initially begin to fix them, because that’s what many of them are good at and it what fills them with a sense of pride and fulfillment. The Society leaders, including Paul, turn themselves in.
Unlike a lot of science fiction dystopias, this one still feels plausible and not far off. Our present day society is actively having conversations about the increasing roles of robotics and automation, ranging over a lot of areas, whether that be inside an Amazon factory, the inside of a McDonald’s, or in the sex industry. Yes, the novel even alludes to a future wherein women might be replaced by with life-life robotic simulations.
The major theme of the novel is the dehumanization. The villains are the self-stylized heroes of the high IQ class, who use machines as tools, and who genuinely believe that their actions are good. The story argues that human beings require more than merely food, shelter, and clothes. They require purpose and dignity. A “Player Piano” – the title of the novel – is a piano that plays itself. The piano keys moves in a pattern set by an unwinding scroll. In the novel, the player piano operates as a metaphor for how even a simple task – such as teaching oneself to play piano and then doing so – has been replaced by automation. We are told that though the machines are good at most things, they have not quite figured out art. It is implied that they never will figure art out, also, due to the society’s stringent anti-sabotage laws which prevent speaking out against the System. Early in the novel, Paul’s friend Finnerty is shown manually playing a Player Piano and it evoked the idea of humanity reclaiming its dignity from the machines.
One of my favorite conversations in the novel occurs when The Shah, after hearing about time-saving modern conveniences, asks what people are doing with all of that extra time and he is told that people watch television. You cannot help but read that exchange, the Shah’s confusion, and wonder if the person watching television might not be better off with the extra work.
As mentioned above, the ultimate villains in the novel are not the machines. The villains are the corporate and governmental overlords who use technological improvements, and the genuine efficiency brought about by them, to enforce the boundaries of their own station and to advance the gap between themselves and others. These tyrants are the worst type of tyrants in that because they believe that what they are doing is a good thing, and because they have statistics to back up those claims, anything said to the contrary about the System creates cognitive dissonance, so they refuse to reflect on the society they are building or to slow down in their efforts. Paul is closely monitored and essentially labeled a terrorist for asking societal questions aloud.
Vonnegut’s use of The Shah was, I thought, an effective way to nudge a reader outside of themselves and to see his Ilium society from an outside perspective. The nudge is a necessary one due to the proximity Ilium has to our real world. The main plot of the book is not a far enough step away into escapism to make many of Vonnegut’s points on an observation of Paul only. Through The Shah, we are given a perspective wherein it truly is hard to explain the actual difference between “citizens” and “slaves” in a way that feels satisfactory even to someone who wants to see a difference.
One aspect of the novel, which I feel makes it worth reading even today, is the way in which its ideas and themes seem to cross modern political boundaries in multiple directions. Someone on the American political Left might read this book and see in Paul Proteus a reluctant 1%er and in the themes of the novel, a class struggle between dystopian Oligarchs and the people. Someone on the political Right might see an underclass working to conserve traditional American values against a type of Progress that amounts to ruination for the spiritual well-being of humanity. Within the novel, as it exists outside of our modern affiliations, these two modern perspectives can exist within the same characters and with no tension.
The conclusion of the novel is ironic, sad, and it rings true. The revolution fails on multiple levels. In the immediate sense, not enough other cities overthrew their plants, and as a result the System is going to strike back and win. In the long-range sense, though, the revolution also fails because the people in Ilium demonstrate that even if they had won more completely, they cannot help themselves from rebuilding the adversary they just threw down. The one bit of optimism in all of this is that we are led to believe – due to the way Vonnegut explains humanity – that new revolutions, of new varieties will occur, because humanity is above all incapable of existing without the excitement derived from change. That notion is manifested subtly in the very name of the protagonist – Paul Proteus – as “Proteus” is a Greek deity of sea change.
I recommend this novel. It was an easy and relatively short read despite having deep, consequential, and relevant themes.
If you’ve read Player Piano, I’d love to her what you think.