I hesitate to classify this as "science-fiction" but it's certainly something other than realistic or postmodern fiction: looking for a new shelf-titlI hesitate to classify this as "science-fiction" but it's certainly something other than realistic or postmodern fiction: looking for a new shelf-title.
Warming: SPOILER, sort-of. Vonnegut's novels never depend on suspense about how things will end. In most of his later books he tells us the end in the beginning (e.g.,Hocus Pocus) so I don't think my review will spoil the book for anyone who knows Vonnegut's style or attitude.
In midcareer Dr. Paul Proteus is poised to take over the coveted "Pittsburgh job." These are the years after the Second Industrial Revolution which succeeded the U.S. victory in World War III. (That's Three.) Proteus is the highest-paid manager/engineer at the Ilium (NY) Works and just a couple steps from the top of the profession. The current National, Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director, however, meets with Proteus and asks him instead to go undercover and infiltrate an unprecedented threat to America's Golden Age: "The Ghost Shirt Society." To do this, he must be spectacularly booted out of respectable society. So in the middle of the annual Meadows Team Spirit Convention of Works Managers and Directors, Proteus is publicly disgraced as a saboteur. The complication? Dr. Paul Proteus had already decided he's going to quit, for real, truly; he's going to renounce the Second Industrial Revolution and go live with the "others," the "people," the "unmentionables," the "consumers." The dismal failure of that revolution is the cynical and troubling ending of the book. No one ever called Vonnegut a Pollyanna.
This is Kurt Vonnegut's first novel (1952), and compared to his later work, its style is relatively tame: it only has one main narrative which happens in the present, it has episodes and stages, a narrator who is the omniscient author without wisecracks and asides, and a resolution of sorts. It follows Paul's dispirited life as managing/engineer in an automated economy and, with a parallel narrative, the Shah of Bratpuhr's tour of the country with Dr. Ewing J. Halyard, a facile tour guide. The Shah keeps confusing the free American people with slaves. Because in this Golden Age Dystopia, political elections are irrelevant because the country is run by technology and technology's managers. There is only business. Political leaders are less prestigious figureheads than England's royals. People have nothing to do: why aren't they happy? Which is Vonnegut's point.
Their every need is apprehended by computers, their food is delivered, their houses designed and remodeled, their courts run by polygraphs and other statistical record-keeping. They have nothing to do, except a couple of lame make-work job corps programs. No decisions to take except (what Vonnegut doesn't really deal with) which or what kind of family to "make." Generally no one can advance from "the people" to "the managers" because their records don't qualify them to college education. C'est la vie, in the Golden Age. C'est la vie, in Player Piano, published in, honest, 1952!! Ah, another good man gone.
Player Piano is that often lesser "first novel" and true to form it seems like it could have been written by someone else, a "lesser" writer—that is to say, "lesser" in my appraisal of Vonnegut as blazing with unique skinny pointed style and savage wisdom. For an introduction to Vonnegut, I would recommend later titles like Slaughterhouse Five and Galapagos. But it is definitely a "good read." A "lesser" novel, then, except.
Except for an undercurrent of—well,--sweetness and a clear unblinking eye. There's less irony here than in his later work, less polish; it's a more direct parody. It was written after World War II and like the work of many veterans it looks at triumphalism with a leery gaze. Yes, welcome to peace and prosperity, but is there a limit to endless boosterism for business, commerce, technology? I read recently a saying attributed to Germany at the end of WWII: "at the end of a war three armies remain: the army of the wounded, the army of the mourners, and the army of the thieves." In this case, the manager/engineers of the U.S. are the army of the thieves; theirs is a world of ever-increasing efficiency and ingenious automation. The consequence is inevitable: average people are not needed any more except to use the products of technology
By the way, let's be clear that regretfully all the "people" are men. There are wives and children but only as decorative consumers and accoutrements. The book, after all, was written in 1952. That said, the wife of the main character is more fully drawn and less caricatured than women characters in many post-feminist books—I name no names. Moreover, in this world, if you are a man (and since there's no mention of race it can be assumed that all the men in the authorial vision are Euros*--another sign of the literature of the fifties)—so, if you are a white man and you score high enough in the right aptitude, you will go to college and study engineering and management which are the only two fields. (I think of the gross swelling of Business programs and Communication Studies at many an American university over the last fifty years.) Unless, that is, along the way you commit some egregious gaffe, like laughing at some solemn pronouncement of emotional sentiment honoring, with profound awe and wonder, the age of efficiency.
If you fail to make college, you will not learn a trade—either manual or clerical—because there are none. You will have everything you need except meaningful work or a goal. Art and literature are created by committee according to mechanized information processing. Now the mechanics of this Dystopia are inconsistently imagined and a reader could quibble, "Why then does Proteus have a secretary?" And "how does all this stuff get delivered? Who drives?" The point of the parody, however, is mechanical efficiency as the glorious and sacred goal of "the nation." Today, some sixty years later, we call it technology, not automation, but it's clearly still an ugly little ghost in the American machine. It's worked out a little differently than Vonnegut's 1952 vision, but the outcomes are the same.
An amusing, quirky, odd little Dystopic science fiction book for an easy read. Not too cheerful. "Player Piano" –the title—comes from the piano that needs no human to play it, of course.
End of Book Review: Beginning of Peroration on Efficiency in the Heartland, 2012.
So it looks like Vonnegut's Dystopia didn't come about, does it?
Here in mid-Nebraska, there used to be, in 1950, say, probably eight farming families per square mile ("section"). Today there are only one or two, at most, and in many sections none because the big landowner has a residence in a town and can make more money out of old home sites by razing them, burning or burying, and leveling and farming. That's called "efficiency." Now, those two farmers where there used to be eight are also probably at least four times as wealthy as the "old-timers" were, although they are still subsidized. They take their families to resorts in Mexico, Hawaii, or Arizona for the winters because they don't bother with any of that subsistence nonsense, like milking cows, or gathering eggs. They don't bother with big gardens, either, because what's the use of preserving food for the winter when you're traveling and food is "included" in your "package"?
What happened to the other six to eight families per square mile? That's a lot of people when you considered how many square miles there are of farmland. They are no longer self-employed, self-sufficient people, and most of them resent their reduction in class status. Of course, many blame "the Mexicans" or "the blacks" or even "women and gays" for their losses. Some of them are the stuff of Hate Groups, racist politics, and pseudo-nostalgia politics that call themselves conservative and evoke a way back to that better, moral, family-based, heartland, free-white-and-twenty-one past. It's insulting to have to compete with Mexicans and women to work in a factory!
Small towns used to exist to service all those farm families. They are dying out, their schools closing, their churches going empty, their main streets like ghost towns. Their last few cents are squeezed by clever "booster" consultants who offer them vain suggestions for revitalization. "Why don't you get bright flags? Better yet, line your streets with American flags (and I just happen to have a good source)." "Pipe canned music over a public address system; it makes it seem lively." I think one of my saddest moments was going from my car to a little hardware store in a small town close to Christmas. I remember when the sidewalks of these towns were full of shoppers. But at that moment, a discordant Czech band version of Jingle Bells rang raucously out over streets utterly empty of shoppers, of cars. "Fillmore County Redevelopment Corporation." "Geneva Community Revitalization Committee": "Celebrate Geneva's Patriotism." "See yourself in Friend!"
In addition, those farms used to generate jobs for temporary labor, often for high school teens out for the summer. The money that used to go, then, to local labor now goes to pay interest on loans for big and bigger and bigger equipment, i.e., to banks big enough to finance these big deals, and therefore to inflated insurance costs to cover the indebtedness, to buy petroleum to run mechanized watering systems and pump water from the vulnerable groundwater sources and then mix it with chemicals based on petroleum as well, toxic herbicides and insecticides. That means a lot of money leaving those little communities, those rural counties trying to finance schools and hospitals.
Young people graduate from high schools, and leave. Where would they find work? Where there is work in these heartland rural areas, it is mostly for Walmart, for Walgreen, for Wendy's, McDonald's and Burger King, for Taco John and Arby's, for Starbucks. In other words, chump wages for no training, and the real "profits" not going to local owners but to distant corporations. A few niches remain for knowledgeable trades: small construction companies, a few hardware and lumber and seed stores.
The environment? Well, big farms means no more need for homes and woodlots and hedges and gardens and field separations: farm every last inch of it. Since the seventies one sign of this is pivot irrigation. A motor-driven well supplies a long irrigation pipe up on wheeled stands. Ideally you can irrigate a circle of an entire section of land that way, with a radius of half a mile. But you can't have trees, or creeks, or anything as an obstacle. Big equipment has efficiently leveled hills and valleys, destroying marshes, wetlands, creeks and streams in the process. Where there once were hedgerows—i.e., trees, shrubs and grasses along the edges of fields, where there were once roadside trees and vegetation, riparian habitat, there is nothing but flat scraped raw earth, with pivot irrigation systems. The few places for wildlife are along highway roadsides which are the only places the "ditches" are not regularly burned. That means more roadkill, more overcrowding, disease, starvation. Because that's where wild life congregates, it's where hawks and owls hunt, and where they are increasingly struck by traffic, especially big rigs. And now (2012) farmers are even farming the easements along unused railroad tracks, along the highways, burning the very ditches so that the chemically dirty run-off goes straight into the aquifers, no longer filtered by the root systems of the ditch vegetation.
What happened to the farm products? Genetically modified crops that "don't mind" being regularly air-plane-sprayed with pesticide (which drifts onto vegetation of the people who live nearby, to say nothing of the children, the few who even go outside).Chickens, ducks, turkeys, cows and pigs are no longer treated like sentient beings who need shade and sun and space, the way my grandparents raised livestock and poultry, but are raised in literal death camps, called CAFOs, or Confined Animal Farming Operations, also called, by those less friendly, Confined Animal Factory Operations: insanitary crowded conditions, creatures soused with antibiotics that cause bacterial resistance, laced with chemicals and hormones, and fed dead corpses of sick animals. These animals go insane from their confined quarters, never seeing sunlight, or breathing fresh air, or touching the good earth, not a moment of freedom but goaded always toward increased production—of milk, eggs, meat. In many places the tongues of ducks are torn out, the beaks of the chickens and their syrinxes (voice-boxes) cut off, cut out. They suffer in an ungodly silence. We feed on their suffering, we eat agony and insanity in our "cheaper" food. we have become a nation that feeds on the products of torture.
Efficient, yes, in not requiring skilled labor. I read recently that the last 20 years has been spent converting the U.S. from a nation of people to a commercial enterprise. After 9/11/2011, President Bush, the lesser, urged people to "keep spending money" as the most patriotic thing they could do. I see daily the way our countryside in the Midwest has become less and less livable, for people as well as all other life. In the last ten years my hometown has lost its high school, its insurance agency, its bank, its only cafe. The lumberyard/hardware store is a sleepy dusty place with one angry owner and one employee. When it was owned by this owner's father and two uncles, it was West Brothers Construction, and it employed as many as twenty people besides the three brothers, one who ran crews, one who drew plans and made up bids, and one who ran the hardware store.
So much more efficient. Except is it more efficient for all of us rural people to drive ten to twenty miles for groceries, gas, thumbtacks, stationery, a meal out (and even that is increasingly fast foods)? It would be more efficient to get rid of all the towns and farm that land. And where does that population go? The same place it has been going for decades, to more and more crowded cities, to get a job for "the Corporations."
Player Piano: what a fitting title and metaphor. The player piano means starvation for the piano player who used to entertain in bars, in restaurants, at human gatherings. And with all this efficiency in the farmlands, starvation has not been reduced. We grow it for corn-based throw-away plastic cups. Efficient.
This marvelous exercise in 'what if' fiction is an old favorite of mine, worth rereading occasionally for sheer wonder. It is most distinctive for theThis marvelous exercise in 'what if' fiction is an old favorite of mine, worth rereading occasionally for sheer wonder. It is most distinctive for the imagined gendering of the world called Winter, where the inhabitants are like humans in nearly every respect except in gender. They are neuter most of the time, coming 'into heat' only occasionally or when in proximity to others in what is called "kemmer." Each time one of them enters "kemmer" the gender that will manifest is unpredictable. Thus the same person may become a mother-parent one time and a father-parent in another period. The visiting Earthling struggles with how to refer to a monarch, a friend, an enemy--how to refer to anyone who has no gender, and in fact has no sexuality, no secondary sexual characteristics, for the most part his/her/neither's life. The story itself is thrilling, and the climactic struggle finds the Earthling, a male who is--to the locals--a freakishly perpetually gendered and sexual creature, sequestered in a long struggle through an Arctic together with a local who therefore in such proximity suffers from 'kemmer,' becoming female in response to the earthling's maleness but at the same time being fully 'masculine' in being the leader of the struggle for survival both physically and mentally.
The story had the same effect on my early feminist development as learning that the colonies of animals called "jellyfish" are completely female, and that some fish change from male to female or vice versa depending on the need for more of one or the other to balance a population. To reimagine gender as not inherent. To look at our biological arrangements as curiously arbitrary. To wonder "what if." Le Guin may be classified as "Science Fiction" writer, but she is always examining sociology, nature and nurture, good and evil, and philosophical quests. Recommend. Recommend. Recommend....more