Matt Dorsey's Reviews > Player Piano

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
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's review
Oct 12, 2007

really liked it
Read in November, 2007

Is it acceptable to call a soft sci-fi dystopian novel badass? Does that reveal the total nerd at the core of my character?

The only reason I can see for this book not to be mentioned as one of Vonnegut's greats is that it's edged out by the half-dozen or so outright masterpieces in his canon. But for a first novel, this is ace. It's Vonnegut's most conventionally structured novel, and possibly even his least original. The plot is more or less a tweaking of Huxley's 'Brave New World' (Vonnegut himself has admitted this). Yet frankly, I like it better than that dystopia, as 'Player Piano' is more focused, has better flow, and the satirical elements don't rely as much on suspension of disbelief.

Kurt Vonnegut was not a luddite. This is important to keep in mind when considering the book's premise. The idea of mechanical labor replacing human workers is simply the means around which Vonnegut builds his multi-tiered assault on corporate aristocracy, to borrow an excellent and underused term from David Korten. The satire is wicked-sharp. Consumerism, the class divide, barriers to entry of higher education, and even peace-time mentality all get their comeuppance in Vonnegut's portrayal of a near-future America where socialism and manufactured material desires are used to sate the drive of the lower class (most of the population), while ass-kissing mono-talents get drunk off their own wealth and power. It's socio-political satire that's refreshingly more socio than political, and it's no less relevant now, 55 years after its first pressing, than it was then. Somewhere in the book's final third, the resistance movement gains a strong voice, and the writing may coax the reader into aligning with it. The wit and intellect of the author really comes through here: does this story have any heroes, or are the revolutionaries really just anarchists who by their nature must shake up whatever order there is?

After this, his first novel, Vonnegut went on to write far more original and versatile works, many of which I've read. Absent here are the non-linear narratives, single-word commentary sentences, chatty introductions and frequent narrator editorializing which would become his M.O. However, reading 'Player Piano' should make it obvious why he soon created his own rules for writing a novel: with his very first, he'd already done all he could within the bounds of conventional composition. 'Player Piano' is Vonnegut's most straightforward narrative, but also possibly his harshest and most thorough satire; his social discontent and bitterness does not jump out in short bursts here, but is more cool and collected, and therefore able to seethe beneath every word of this carefully constructed and brutal depiction of the powers-that-be and the trail of human wreckage left behind in the name of "progress".
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09/01/2016 marked as: read

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Ruth Thank you! Seems it's cool to not like Player Piano, but I do, linear story line and all. Biting social satire that grows as the book progresses. Characters that remind me of people I know. A society not all rust different from what I see evolving around us - a technocracy wedded to a nanny state. Vonnegut's a prophet.

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