Review: Player Piano
Title: Player Piano (1952) (296 pages)
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Genre: Science Fiction
Summary: The story of an individual’s fight against the machine-like society we’ve created. As Vonnegut’s first published novel this book lacks some of the characteristics that the author is known for today, but it makes up for what it’s missing in style through a surplus of raw energy. By following two opposite perspectives through a futuristic America where industry has automated past the need for unskilled workers the reader is taken on a tour to sights that the elites prefer are left unseen. One main character, an ambassador from a foreign nation, calmly disassembles every bit of the ‘advanced’ society with tidbits of wisdom from his home country – though he has many good lines he works more as a cutout than a character, an opportunity to strike the same pose over and over again. The ‘true’ main character, Paul Proteus, participates in a revolution. Proteus inherited social importance from his father but not the skills necessary to further or even maintain it; his failure results in his becoming a key part of a resistance that ignites an explosive conflict. He is easy to relate to because he is an every-man, unsure of everything except that he is painfully and irredeemably average. I’m sure that his Newtonian suspicion that there is no ultimate point of his participation because he has no chance of altering the way things play out is a perspective shared by more people than just me.
Though Vonnegut is a bit indulgent in some of his other writings this book is mainly effort, minimal pride and ego, maximum message; while that can result in a bit of a preacher/congregation dynamic, this is a speaker who knows what he is talking about so it is actually a benefit to listen. Given that this was written in a different time for readers with a different standard of vocabulary there are sections that drag, but if a person is willing to fight through the tedious portions of the book – which were intentionally written that way because without them the meaning of the narrative has no backing – I promise an arrival at a stunningly useful revelation. Properly experienced and read, the construction of this story leaves no other option than to learn the lessons it offers; we are all born as keys of a player piano.
What kept me interested: The parallels. I gave some plot information in the summary but it is still nowhere near a fair representation of Player Piano’s scope; that is better communicated through a thorough observation of the modern world. When a writer manages to capture their own reality as well as that of a future -which they could at best make an educated guess at- they’ve proven that the words they come up with are worth paying attention to. I consider myself lucky whenever I come across a book like Player Piano.
Recommended for: Patient and thoughtful readers
Fun Fact: More of a guess, but there’s a chance the ending of this book inspired the final scene (a favorite of mine) from Rob Zombie’s movie The Devil’s Rejects.