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Player Piano: A Novel Paperback – January 12, 1999
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This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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“A funny, savage appraisal of a totally automated American society of the future.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“An exuberant, crackling style . . . Vonnegut is a black humorist, fantasist and satirist, a man disposed to deep and comic reflection on the human dilemma.”—Life
“His black logic . . . gives us something to laugh about and much to fear.”—The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
Vonnegut's spins the chilling tale of engineer Paul Proteus, who must find a way to live in a world dominated by a supercomputer and run completely by machines. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
Its a story set sometime in the future where machines are pretty much doing everything and the only positions of value are those that machines can't do. There are two groups of people -- those who have gone onto college and earned doctorates in engineering, real estate, management -- and those deemed 'too stupid' to go to college. And then there are those who create machines that make the human obsolete.
Those in the favored class think that because they give all the material things anyone could want, they have created a good life for those they see as inferior, but what it does is create a layer of resentment. And in the midst of all this is one man who wants to be a bridge between both sides.
The book takes place after a great war, presumably World War III, which America won by designing high-tech (at the time) thinking machines. Years later, these thinking machines handle pretty much everything from making products to running the government. This has created a sort of caste system where people are judged from a young age by certain tests. Those who pass become part of the "haves"--engineers and managers--while the rest become the "have nots" known as reek and recs.
Dr. Paul Proteus is the son of the man who first introduced the thinking machines and over time has become disillusioned with them and the caste system. When he goes across the bridge to the poor side of town he sees how the other half lives and becomes determined to quit his high-paying job and become a simple farmer. But soon Paul gets swept up into a revolution against the machines.
What I like is how Vonnegut creates this world dominated by a sort of benign fascism. In this system people aren't killed or sent to concentration camps or even forced to wear yellow stars; instead they're given modest homes and televisions so they have something to occupy them. So the greatest horror isn't storm troopers or secret police but boredom and a lack of dignity that comes from having no purpose.
The mention of things like vacuum tubes give the book a little dated feel and yet the core concept is still highly relevant. Instead of giant thinking machines using vacuum tubes we have tiny machines using microchips and robots and now 3D printing. As automation becomes more prevalent it forces more people either out of work or into menial minimum wage jobs. Barring a global catastrophe, this automation is only going to become more prevalent and more advanced until like in Vonnegut's world, we have billions of people who have been rendered obsolete and no longer serve any useful function.
In the "Star Trek" universe people turn all this automation into something good by pursuing other life goals. Sadly I tend to think Vonnegut's outlook is more realistic. But then I work in Detroit, where you can see the effects of societal change with every abandoned house and store front.
This was Vonnegut's first novel and it lacks some of the playfulness of his later books. You don't have the author's pithy "So it goes" or "Hi-Ho" or any of that. The narrative feels a little long at times, especially concerning the shah of some country visiting America. That subplot is included largely to give readers a look at America beyond upstate New York, but it really doesn't add that much. Plus it involves a lot of casual racism that was commonplace in the 50s but would create quite a stir today.
Still for a first novel it is a fascinating read I would highly recommend.
That is all.
Perhaps I came to this at the wrong time, having just been reading Christopher Hitchens who does an excellent job of dissecting this kind of narrative (in a positive way). Once you've read Hitchens' analysis of the pattern addressed here, the patterns become all too obvious, and Vonnegut offers little beyond the basic pattern.
It certainly reveals the prejudices of its author, but today it is most interesting for having spawned many successors, ignorant or intentional, who address much the same issue of automation depriving workers of a purpose. Nothing here would surprise Thomas Hardy though, just substitute farm workers for factory workers, and industrialisation for automation and you're done. The only novelty here is the downbeat failure/meaninglessness of the revolution. You can force a positive spin on this if you work at it, but it takes an effort.
For a more modern work, Alan Moore's first Halo Jones book says as much in a lot fewer words.
For the same kind of mid-life crisis character as the protagonist, there are hundreds of books that deliver something more realistic, believable and meaningful. If this had been Vonnegut's only work, he'd be forgotten by now.