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Player Piano: A Novel Paperback – January 12, 1999
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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.
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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.
Of course, because it was published in 1952, there are some technological oddities in the book that don't make sense for something that is supposed to be taking place in the future. For example, vacuum tubes and punched cards have yet to be replaced by transistors and magnetic tape (which is what the next stage actually became in the 20th century). But in general the book is not "old fashioned" in any way that is noticeable to the reader.
With that said, I did find the idea of a command economy controlled entirely by a single central computer somewhat unrealistic. It seemed a little too Soviet Union for me and we all know how that experiment ended. Essentially, the economy in this book is a fascist one - a combination of government and industry working closely together.
The main theme of the book is that when people feel they are useless, they are unhappy. In other words, if a person doesn't have any useful job to do because he has been replaced by a robot, his existence is meaningless.
This is actually why I read the book - to get the author's take on it. (I won't give the away the ending - it is very well done.)
However, I will say that in my opinion, I think people who felt "useless" in reality would actually just do things as a hobby to make themselves feel useful again. Maybe most people would be content to sit around and watch TV/youtube all day, every day, but eventually some people would get bored with that and want to do something with their lives. For example, in today's (2014) real world economy, people take up hobbies that don't make "economic sense" - such woodworking, sewing, repairing antique cars - and they derive pleasure from it. So, to me, it seems that there are alternatives to the author's conclusion in the book...
The central theme of obsolescence and human usefulness is very relevant, possibly even more now than it was at the time. The constant reduction of scrap and refinement of technology is something all engineers are pretty familiar with, and this book highlights how it can be taken too far.
On it's own, it's a well done work of sci-fi, but compared to Vonnegut's other work, it feels a bit lackluster. There is still a subtle sense of humor present, but it doesn't have the ever-present ear to ear maniacal grin that you expect from him. Overall, it's a quick read and enjoyable throughout, but I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to Vonnegut. Let this one stand on it's own legs.