Joshum Harpy's Reviews > Player Piano

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
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May 18, 2012

it was amazing

I was working as a janitor the day that Kurt Vonnegut died. Sweeping the floors, I listened as the news came over talk radio and I remember distinctly standing up stiff and staring hard at the speakers while the news sank in. I had recently heard in interviews and read Vonnegut sharing his feelings about his own death. That he had reconciled himself to it and felt that he had done much with his life, that he was ready to go (I'm paraphrasing, of course his words were funnier and more acidic). Still, standing there with my broom in an abandoned diner, I cried for Kurt. I wasn't crying because he had gone too soon, or because it was unjust or shocking, I cried for all of us who have to live in a world without him. His voice, his fierce, sentimental, hilarious and acidic cultural commentary shed light on our lives in a way no one else can. No one could ever hope to call "bullshit" so effectively, concisely, and with as much heart as Vonnegut spent his life doing. I have never read a book by Kurt Vonnegut that I didn't adore and this novel is perhaps one of his best.

A beautiful book about the reckless and relentless escalation of technology and automation, questioning if the inexorable rise of gadgetry in our time has really improved the quality of our lives. This was Vonnegut's first novel and it has a decidedly different feel than his larger body of work. It is a bit bleaker in tone and lacks the same degree of absurdist whimsey which Vonnegut later mastered. The humor is still there, but there is a desperation and darkness which is not softened by Vonnegut's typical absurdist shrug.

Written during the technological boom in the wake of WWII, this book was a dystopian projection of where that technology may lead. A significant element of the plot is the massive supercomputer EPICAC, buried in the winding caves of Carlsbad Caverns, a not so subtle reference to ENIAC, the world's first computer, which had gone online just 6 years before this book was published. This computer, which works on paper punch cards, vacuum tubes and magnetic tape, is very much dated with the popular technology of the time. However the dated nature of all the technology central to the story, only reinforces the theme of technology and automation escalating faster than humans can possibly understand the implications.

The protagonist, Paul Proteus, is a gifted and successful engineer on the verge of a breakdown due to his disillusionment with his profession and growing disbelief in the benefits of a fully automated world. He begins to sympathize with the dispossessed working class, which has been segregated by IQ into pointless lives where they have the choice of joining the military or doing construction work. Through this ordering of society by mechanistic intelligence, Vonnegut satirizes capitalism, hierarchical societies and the spiritually and emotionally void nature of a culture which worships the escalation of technology above all other concerns. The novel escalates from there in typical Vonnegut fashion as the reasonably likeable and humble Paul Proteus is pinballed around a world gone crazy.

Despite the novel being 60 years old (an aeon in terms of technological advancement these days), and most of the references to technology being at this point naive, antiquated and understated, this book is not only still relevant, it is more relevant by the second. We live in an age of transition so dramatic and technological in nature that the themes of this book define our era, and there is no writer I would trust more to call bullshit on our brave new world than Vonnegut.
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May 18, 2012 – Shelved

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Rob (new)

Rob I heard on the radio that he had died. It was early morning and I was waking up in bed (I live in the UK). It felt like something really good had left planet Earth. I felt sickeningly sad but I keep reading his marvelous wise and witty books. I aspire to be a writer and no one inspires me more than Mr Kurt Vonnegut jr.

Mark Perfect

Petergiaquinta The world is a lesser place without Vonnegut in it, that's for sure.

Part of me wishes he was here today to pass comment on the clown running the show, as well as all those who voted him into office. The Shah of Bratpuhr would appreciate what "takaru" we have become.

And then part of me is glad Vonnegut isn't here to see this mess we've created. He was having a hard enough time with GW Bush's administration, and today that all seems like compassionate, highly effective statecraft in action.

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