Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > Player Piano

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
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it was amazing

Kurt Vonnegut's 1952 Player Piano is a witty, quietly underplayed dystopia that asks a question which grows ever more important in the modern world: "What are people really for?" Possible answers are by no means out of reach--and Ray Bradbury, for example, gave quite a decent one in "--And the Moon Be Still as Bright" in his 1950 The Martian Chronicles--but the difficulty is how in the world to get there from here. Although Vonnegut may not quite know either, his warning still hits perhaps as close to home as it did in the early postwar years.

The novel is set in a prosperous, initially idyllic-seeming postwar period, too. The Third World War, even more so than the Second, was won with American "know-how": the "miracle" of "production with almost no manpower" (1952 Scribner's edition, page 1). Once all the careful, skilled movements of various "master machinist[s]" (page 9) have been transferred to magnetic tape, after all, a factory essentially can run itself, and former workers instead can be sent to the front to man "the electric fence[s], the proximity mines..., the microwave sentinels openin' up with the remote-control machine-gun nests, and the fire-control system[s] swiveling the guns and flamethrowers around as long as anything was quiverin' within a mile of the place" (page 220). Yet after the "dose of Gamma rays" in China, the "radioactive dust" in Turkey, and the "trenchfoot" presumably in Poland (page 221), will there be any jobs for ex-soldiers to return to? Oh, make-work manual labor in the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps--the Reeks and Wrecks (page 21)--yes. But work to be proud of, work that might fulfill and feel useful? No.

This postwar world of plenty is the world of the managers, the dignified holders of graduate degrees in science and whatnot--more on the whatnot later--who design and improve the factories turning out the endless goods for the dispirited "common man." It is an America where, actually, "the sheepskin [is] nothing," while the accompanying "Achievement and Aptitude Graph" is "everything" (page 65). "When time for graduation [comes], a machine [takes] a student's grades and other performances and integrate[s] them into one graph--the profile" with data points for "theory," "administration," "creativity, and so on, up and down across the page," all the way to the "mysterious, unnamed units of measure" for "personality" (page 65). Indeed, "[e]veryone's I.Q., as measured by the National Standard General Classification Test, [is] on public record...at the police station" (page 77).

Everyone's place in society depends on the classification test and resultant holes on one's computer punchcard. But it all depends of what the scale is, doesn't it?--what society values, and how much, and why. Of course, anyone who is anyone has a doctorate...and yet not just in the supposedly holy areas of engineering either. The "secretary" stationed in the anteroom of the protagonist's office, after all, is a "Doctor" (page 2), as is a real estate agent who explains "coolly" to an unimpressed laborer that he "spent seven years in the Cornell Graduate School of Realty" and produced an 896-page dissertation (page 133). It is only the people on the very edge of the ruling class, half a step up from men in the Army or the Reeks and Wrecks, who have--the horror! the horror!--"nothing but a B.S." (page 280).

Dr. Paul Proteus, son of the famous Dr. George Proteus, whose position of "National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director" had been "approached in importance only by the presidency of the United States" (page 2)--approached, mind you, not exceeded--somehow is a malcontent. Some of it may be psychological, an Oedipal rebellion against a too-powerful and yet distant father figure, but some of it is simply thoughtful discernment. Paul Proteus holds a high position in the self-worshiping management class that runs the postwar world under the advisement of EPICAC XIV, the great "electronic computing machine" or "a brain, if you like," which incorporates "more vacuum tubes...than there were...in the State of New York before World War II" (page 100). And, as long as he plays his cards right, he will go straight to the top.

Paul can't, though. Even amidst the punchcards and vacuum tubes and blinking lights and meters of "the personnel machines," after all, nepotism benefits the "barely acceptable" for the sake of currying favor from those of influential "bloodlines" (page 40)--and even the admittedly talented Paul benefits from his own brand of this (page 111)--while a man who according to his "aptitude-test grades" has "no talent" for design (page 64) actually is a relentless inventor of useful devices...and, unbidden, designs a "gadget" that can do his own job better than he can, thereby displacing him and dozens of others of the same classification from employment (page 63). There is blind rule-following, there is cutesy conventionalism, and there are millions without hope or pride, only sullen resentment.

At least there is humor--for the reader, anyway. The Shah of Bratpuhr, for example, "spiritual leader of 6,000,000 members of the Kolhouri sect" (page 16), pops in from chapter to chapter with his translating nephew and the flustered State Department official trying to sell them on The American Way. After an explanation of how "any man who cannot support himself by doing a job better than a machine is employed by the government in the Army or the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps," the Shah tut-tuts that this is Communism (pages 18-19); he cannot quite ever understand the difference between his nation's "Takaru," or "slave," and the "citizen" of the U.S. either, since "[i]n the Shah's land there are only the Elite and the Takaru" (page 19). Although the ordinarily droll Shah is in awe of the mammoth EPICAC, "[f]or the first time...really impressed, even startled" (page 104), the machine's failure to answer a prophetic riddle makes the old man scorn it as a "false god" (page 106)...and yet when liquored up on "the sacred Kolhouri drink" in his "hip flask" (page 17), he has no compunction about propositioning "a startlingly beautiful, dark-skinned brunette" Takaru on the street for some "Fit-fit" (page 207). And speaking of fit-fit, when Paul's snooty, status-conscious, and yet non-college-educated wife comments that she "must have had something" that made him marry her, Paul agrees flatly: "Oligomenorrhea... Means delayed menstrual period" (page 153).

Aside from such ironies and witticisms--including the gag with the farm hand, unimpressed by the Cornell PhD in Real Estate, saying he would be "out in the barn shoveling my thesis" (page 134)--there actually is a serious, or at least semi-serious, plotline involving Paul Proteus. There is his strangely superficial marriage, there is the ennui of his job and his position, and there is the possibility of nationwide anti-machine revolution. Ultimately, Kurt Vonnegut by the last page may provide little more concrete direction in getting out of the deep hole his fictional society has dug than does any other dystopia's author, but such is the nature of life, after all, and the warning of his thoroughly enjoyable Player Piano against the allures of materialism and the unchecked, un-thought-out downward slide of dehumanization should be as well taken half a century from now as they were upon the novel's first release half a century ago.

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Reading Progress

August 5, 2020 – Started Reading
August 9, 2020 – Finished Reading
August 10, 2020 – Shelved

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