Why you should read: Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut
by Rachel Bradley
Before writing his breakout work Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., an American science fiction writer, worked in Public Relations at General Electric. He observed the cutting-edge automation of what was traditionally machinists’ work. According to Vonnegut, GE’s decision to have a computer “make all the decisions wasn't a vicious thing to do . . . But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.” So summarizes the heart of Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, a book that arguably came well before its time (published in 1952) and now deserves a second consideration.
Player Piano is not special stylistically. It lacks the quirky fantasy and devastation of Slaughterhouse-Five and the playful and exploratory musing of Cat’s Cradle. Player Piano is straightforward and uncreative in its telling, cribbed from action and science fiction tropes. Vonnegut admits he “cheerfully ripped off” sci-fi classics and, in a self-reflective ‘report card’ written at the end of his career, gave himself a ‘B’ on his first novel.
The contemporary reader, who now observes mass-produced self-driving cars and other unprecedented AI projects, might be convinced then to pick up Player Piano on the grounds that its poignancy lies in the unsettling déjà vu of the premise. Player Piano takes place in a future America where engineers have pushed the decision-making abilities of computers to the absolute limits, to where the vast majority of professions are automated, and most decisions are delegated to a central computer, EPICAC. The justification is the creation of a leisurely existence and man’s freedom from toil. The result is that the greater part of American society is rendered useless, paid a basic income, and redirected to meaningless busywork, while the true work and power lies with an elite minority of managers and engineers whose goal is push more and more labor out of the human realm.
Dr. Paul Proteus, the hero and a key architect of EPICAC, faces the spiritual crisis of the automated world. As he comes to awareness of the plight of Homestead, the slums of the semi-employed on a fixed government income, he is jockeyed into competition for a leadership position by his social climber wife, Anita. One comes at the expense of the other—validating the dignity and humanity of Homesteaders means losing material and romantic comfort. Escalation comes in the form of the “Ghost Shirts”—a revolutionary group that seeks to rectify the injustice of being given nothing meaningful to do for society. Reflection is provided in the personage of the Shah of Bratpuhr, a curious despot visiting from country that actively practices slavery; he consistently finds and points out analogues of oppression that the engineers must awkwardly justify.
A striking side vignette unfolds as the Shah is driven around the city, and he tries to solicit an ordinary-looking woman for prostitution. To the engineers’ surprise, he is successful. The woman confesses she has never before engaged in prostitution, and has only been driven to it by her writer husband’s being fired; his refusal to write according to socially-dictated scripts for the mass market left their family destitute. When the engineer asks her why her husband would prefer she become a prostitute, she replies, “I’m proud to say he’s one of the few men with self-respect left.”
The predictable plot belies an uncommon and honest theme for our days—that a society that outsources all labor to technology may inadvertently drain out too much humanity.
You can buy Player Piano locally here.
Rachel Bradley is an English teacher, writer, and co-founder of Yirmi Yedi. Read her poem “I’ve Never Been to Damascus” previously published in the Bosphorus Review.