Novel: Player Piano

a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.” 

Player Piano was Kurt Vonnegut’s first published novel, and is set in the factory town of Ilium, New York in the near future. In this future scientists and engineers have created machines that now do the vast majority of tasks, leaving most people to either work for the reconstruction and reclamation corps or the army, neither of which serve a purpose besides occupying those who would otherwise be unemployed. Those who do have meaningful jobs by and large oversee the work of machines, which is the position that protagonist Paul Proteus is in when the novel opens. Whilst Proteus’ future is bright and he outwardly seems to believe in the society in which he takes part he feels a growing sense of unease with the pointlessness of it all and the alienation of the common man, yearning for some way to break free. When an old friend, Ed Finnerty, comes to see Paul and announces he has left his job it sends Paul towards a revolutionary struggle against the system in a manner more than slightly reminiscent of Huxley’s Brave New World.

Whilst the plot may not be original Vonnegut’s inimitable style and the slightly closer to home setting of the novel turn it into a very different creature, acting more as a social satire than a heartfelt cry against the system. The machines in Player Piano are still punch card operated and it is not set in a future too far removed from the time when the book was published (1952), leading to a setting less detached from reality than many dystopian novels achieve, which lends weight to the sometimes irreverent style of the novel. The supporting characters are just as three dimensional as Proteus himself, with his wife and their relationship seeming truly plausible and human, and the feeling of despair and rootlessness that Proteus seems to feel resonate strongly with the reader, again helping to stop the book being simply a dry social commentary and instead making it a truly gripping story.

Player Piano is not nearly as polished as Vonnegut’s later work, such as Slaughterhouse five, with a side story involving the Shah of a foreign country seeming particularly out of place, but all in all it holds up incredibly well and makes an interesting addition to the genre of dystopian fiction. By the end of the novel Player Piano Seems not to be anti-technology or anti-progress, but rather anti-stupidity, as only Vonnegut could envision.


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