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Player Piano: A Novel
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on October 2, 2002
This year is the 50th anniversary of this novel. I remember that I was working as an engineer back when I first read it. This was appropriate since most of the main characters are engineers. I remember being struck at how close Vonnegut's predictions about society actually were. Now that I've reexamined them 20 years later, I am even more impressed.

The basic premise of the story is that American industry is run by a tiny group of wealthy and powerful managers and engineers, while the vast majority of the population are stripped of their well-paying industrial jobs and forced to live as poor, powerless menials.

This elite of managers and engineers live in closed, gated Orwellian communities, where they watch each other closely for the slightest hint of nonconformity or disloyalty to the system.

Vonnegut shows how most managers and engineers have always had a contempt for the average American worker and have been looking for a way to replace them even before WW2. He thought that this would primarily be by automation (as opposed to simply shipping the jobs out of the country.)

Vonnegut also assumed that agriculture would be totally mechanised by large corporations and the small farmer made extinct.

There is also the eerie prediction that the President would be a man of low intelligence who would get elected on the basis of a "three hour television show." It would make no difference because there would be no connection between who was elected and who actually ran the country. Remenber, this was in 1952....

Oh yes, he also predicted that no one would be able to get any job worth having without a graduate degree.

I know that some people will say that this novel is dated based simply on the repeated mention of vacuum tubes (transistors were not in commercial use in 1952.) However, if you substiute "integrated circuit" or "computer chip" for every place he uses vacuum tube the obsolescence vanishes. Simularly, a modern reader may laugh at the idea of a computer large enough to fill Carlesbad caverns. Believe me, even today the Cray supercomputers and their support equipment take up quite abit of space.

My only real criticism with Vonnegut's projections is that he thought that engineers would have alot more power and influence than they actually have. From my own experience MBA's, CPA's, and lawyers have much more power.
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on January 31, 2011
My kiddo got this book as a required reading book for her advanced middle school English class. It started out OK until page 10 when the swearing (profanity) started. It's a great book showing an alternate society and the science fiction is fantastic considering the publish date, but the content is not really for younger readers who will end up bored and exposed to unnecessary language. Needless to say we requested an alternate.

Highly recommended though for adult reading. I finished it in just a couple of days because I couldn't put it down.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon April 10, 2017
Kurt Vonnegut was never willing to concede that he wrote science fiction. Though it’s difficult to read his work without drawing that conclusion anyway, his many novels could also be considered as social commentary. Biting commentary, at that.
A pessimistic view of the future

Vonnegut was not an optimist. Though it’s been a long time since I’ve read most of his books, rereading Player Piano, the first of his novels to be published, brought that pessimism home to me. Clearly, dystopian writing came naturally to him from the very beginning.
U.S. society in thrall to automation

Player Piano is the story of Doctor Paul Proteus, the wealthy and powerful manager of the Ilium Works. (“Doctor” is always spelled out in full, never abbreviated—and everyone who holds a responsible position is a Ph.D.) The Works is a sprawling automated factory in the town of Ilium, New York, that produces a multitude of products, as determined by EPICAC XIV, the computer that manages the economy with nominal human supervision. It’s one of a number of such facilities, all integrated into the economic machine that supplies everything anyone in the U.S. might need to live comfortably. The problem is that machines have displaced people from virtually all the jobs.”Those who couldn’t compete economically with machines had their choice, if they had no source of income, of the Army or the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps” (the “Reeks and Wrecks”).

Engineers, managers, and bureaucrats are among the very few job classifications that remain open to human beings. The overwhelming majority of people are left to go through the motions of work in the Army and the Reeks and Wrecks—unless they’re married women and are left to watch machines do all the housework. (Remember: Vonnegut finished writing this book in 1951, when no one would have been surprised by that distinction.) The engineers, managers, and bureaucrats are all required to have high IQs and hold Ph.D.s, but even they have little to do. Theoretically, a single man is in charge of it all: the National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director. But he doesn’t seem to do much other than make speeches.

In Vonnegut’s day, self-directed technology was referred to as automation. We now speak about robots and artificial intelligence.

“[T]he world really was cleared of unnatural terrors—mass starvation, mass imprisonment, mass torture, mass murder.” But this is not a happy society. Few are content to live without work. And they are not free to choose their own careers. “When time for graduation [from high school] came, a machine took a student’s grades and other performances and integrated them into one graph—the profile.” The classification they received as a result determines what role they would be expected to play in society. There is no getting around it.
Vonnegut’s writing style

The style in which Vonnegut wrote Player Piano contrasts with that of his later work. Every sentence is complete. There are no verbal tics such as “So it goes” (which entered the title of a recent Vonnegut biography). And most of the characters resemble living human beings, unlike the caricatures that people some of his other novels. The clearest exception is the Shah of Bratpuhr, a visitor from a faraway land who is traveling throughout the United States. He is “spiritual leader of 6,000,000 members of the Kolhlouri sect.” Based on his experience at home, he sees American society divided between a small elite and all the rest, who are slaves. Vonnegut created for the Shah what looks like a language, which is all that the Shah is capable of speaking. (Vonnegut had studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, where he might have learned enough about the structure of language to create this and the artificial languages that appear in some of his later novels.) The Shah provides comic relief to what is otherwise a serious tale in which Paul Proteus—and, later, others—wrestle with the limited roles to which people have been reduced by machines.

The setting in Player Piano is based on the upstate New York town where Vonnegut and his older brother worked. Bernard was a scientist, Kurt in public relations. They were both employed by General Electric at its research facility in Schenectady, New York.
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on December 6, 2017
Kurt Vonnegut is a world renowned author who wrote many books about many different topics. His first book was Player Piano which depicts a dystopian past where machines have been upgraded to take over for most of the workforce and most people are put out of jobs. The government gives those people jobs but the engineers who created machines cannot be replaced by the machines. Player Piano follows two storylines, one of doctor Paul Proteus and one of the leader of a foreign country. Paul is an engineer at Ilium Works, the main factory in the fictional town of Ilium. Society in split between two sides of a river, on one side the rich engineers and on the other side the poor people of homestead. Society has been set up so that everyone in Homestead is equal and that the engineers are better off than the rest. The leader of the foreign country is known at the Shas. His point of view is supposed to show all the flaws in the society depicted in the story. The point of view of Paul is supposed to show someone from inside the machine, inside the system. I don’t want to ruin the story so I won’t tell anything else but the biggest part of this book is the themes it portrays.
If you want my personal opinion there are two questions I need to answer. Is this a good book? Is this book thought provoking? To answer the first one, heck no, I hate this book with a burning passion. The whole book can be put into about 50 or so pages instead of 360. Most of the book is just meaningless fluff that’s just there for mild enjoyment. It’s terrible. To answer the second question, yes. It’s extremely thought provoking and I felt that was the reason for Kurt Vonnegut to write this book. The reason it is thought provoking is because it shows what will happen when machines completely take over the workforce of manual labor, an entirely possible scenario these days. The book states “Nobody’s so damn well educated that you can’t learn ninety per cent of what he knows in six weeks. The other ten per cent is decoration.”(pg 229). It states that machines have pretty much started to think for the masses that aren’t engineers. Most people in this society are stupid because of this and therefore cannot think for themselves. The book even ends without a proper resolution to let you think about what could happen after the major events in the story. In that aspect it is a fantastic book, but other than that it was a huge waste of time. Every so often there is something decently nice in the absolute clouds of fluff and unnecessary text which adds a bit of humor or something mildly interesting to the otherwise dull and boring book. This book did remind me a lot of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World because it is close to the same premise. Brave New World is about a dystopian future where everything is controlled, how many people are born, their genders, how they are born, social class, literally everything. The point of that book is also to provide a thought provoking experience but it has a lot more conflict and a better plot.
Overall Player Piano is a decent book. It has fantastic themes and it is very though provoking but it isn’t the best Kurt Vonnegut book I’ve read. In my opinion there was too much extra and unnecessary text and the whole conflict is started and wrapped up in the last seven chapters. There was a minor conflict in the beginning of the book but that was left alone and literally never mentioned again.
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on August 14, 2015
I remember that I enjoyed this satirical treatise on Luddism when I was much younger, when the novel wasn't so dated yet. Revisiting it now in the Library of America edition is a bit of a let down. It doesn't grip or inspire, and it rarely amuses. It is too long and too clumsy. It is not gifted with economic prophecy either, though it got some things right.
The look at automated industrial production wasn't far off. Much of this is technical reality now. Production processes in many industries need few human operators.
Socially, the vision is overly pessimistic. The lay-off process due to automation is certainly ongoing, but things are not that black and white. New industries have cropped up, mass production isn't the only way of life. The vision lacks analytical depth, but has its strengths.
In Vonnegut's society, laid off workers are employed by the state, either in military service, or in public works jobs. Competition of manufacturers is avoided via cartel supervision and Soviet style central planning. The economic system has become what leftist critics have called 'state-monopolistic capitalism'. Rebellions are rigorously suppressed. Big brother watches out.

Hero of the story is an engineer with the meaningful name Proteus, who has reached a career level of high influence, but feels bad about it. He is troubled by feelings of guilt. He is torn by thoughts that can be summarized by Adorno's claim that there is no right life in the wrong life. However, how would he be able to function outside the system? He hasn't learned anything 'real'. The scenes from his married life with a super ambitious wife are tedious and simplistic.

The writing is generally not worthy of praise, but there are a few gems, like the barber's speech about the barbering profession as compared to medical doctors and lawyers. One may have to take into account, that this was Vonnegut's first novel, and give him some slack. I need to check if he grew with his later work.
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VINE VOICEon January 16, 2014
The best science fiction is the kind that still manages to be relevant even after almost 60 years. Such is the case with Vonnegut's "Player Piano," which explores our conflicted relationship with the machines we create, how they can be both liberating and dehumanizing.

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.
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on August 24, 2013
1) Plot (3 stars) - In the near future when the engineers are the elite class and all the people they've displaced due to their technology are the lower class, one engineer starts to question the system. It's a good skeleton for a plot, and I was really rooting for it to go somewhere grand, but unfortunately it seemed to stumble around, exploring random details or subplots and never climaxing in much. It felt like it could have been half the length, and still pack the same mild punch.

2) Characters (3 stars) - Paul Proteus is the engineer extraordinaire, a perfectly-fitted cog for the machinery of his society, only he isn't so sure the machine is worth being a cog in anymore. He has a wife who uses him for his title, and a best friend who goads him closer and closer to the edge to see what's out there. All in all, a fine cast, but I felt like they could have been more.

3) Theme (5 stars) - The automation of society, and what become of the humans left behind, is as relevant today as it was in the 1950s when this book was released. First machines take over the manual jobs, then the repetitive jobs, then finally the thinking jobs. And when that happens, society better have some way for all the billions of humans left with nothing to do to feel purpose, or at least dignity; otherwise we're going to have a mess. This is going on today, and the solution always seems to be "more jobs, more jobs." But maybe jobs aren't the purpose of human life, maybe there's another way society can be built. Vonnegut doesn't offer up a blueprint for this other society. I wish he did.

4) Voice (4 stars) - To me, when Vonnegut is at the top of his game, he writes some of the most precise, insightful, and funny sentences in literature. Each is so economically crafted; the words so thoughtfully chosen. He also writes some of the sharpest dialogue, full of misunderstanding and innuendo. His writing can be art of the highest order - good for the head, good for the heart, and good for the smile muscles. However, this is an early Vonnegut work. So though the seeds of his brilliance are there, often the refinement and humor is missing.

5) Setting (3 stars) -The story takes place in Ilium New York in the near future where the upper engineering elite is separate from the lower "useless" class across the river. Some of the descriptions of the places were clever, but I certainly didn't feel like I was transported there.

6) Overall (3 stars) - Many times when reading this I wanted to recommend it. But in the end, I can't. There are moments of genius thoughts, but often they are too buried in a meandering plot and unrealized characters.
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on May 5, 2015
There's a great big beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of ev'ryday
There's a great big beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow's just a dream away

The quotation above is the first verse of the theme for Walt Disney’s attraction “Carousel of Progress.” Carousel of Progress premiered at the 1964 New York World’s Fair where I saw it. I next viewed it about 17 years ago at Walt Disney World. It captivated my then three-year-old daughter who demanded to see it many times.
Carousel of Progress captures part of the American spirit first noticed by Alexis De Tocqueville in the 19th Century. Progress was and would be a constant feature, if not defining characteristic of our nation. Certainly, my baby boomer generation thought that way, at least until the Viet Nam War. It is also true that materially life has only gotten better. What could go wrong?
Everything. At least Kurt Vonnegut thought so. Kurt Vonnegut was an American novelist of the last century who lingered on into this. Not the least of his formative experiences was being captured at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II and living through the firebombing of Dresden. Dresden was arguably as horrible as Hiroshima. There is lingering controversy as to whether or not the raid was at all necessary. Vonnegut did not believe it anything other than an atrocity. In what is his most famous book, Slaughterhouse Five, he recounts his work recovering bodies. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time” and is taken to the planet Tralfamadore. Time and space travel are among the reasons Vonnegut was considered a “Science Fiction” writer.
Player Piano, his first novel, can’t be thought of as science fiction. It is more the result of an acute sense of observation. Vonnegut saw a technological advance. He reasoned that more improvements would occur and compound. The result would be a change in the status of man versus machine not to the advantage of our species.
In 1949, while working at General Electric, Vonnegut saw the future. Machinists were expensively doing the milling of parts for jet engines. A computer operated milling machine was built and took over from the skilled workers. The men who developed the new equipment exulted about all the machines that could be “run by little boxes.” The author agreed, but was not optimistic about what it meant for society.
Has constant technological improvement been a benefit? Depends on whom you ask. Cheerleaders are happy to point out that even with dislocation, there is a net increase in employment and standards of living after every advance. Generally, an artisan craft is eliminated and lower skilled work expands. Textile mills wiped out weavers, as a class. Their higher paid employment was taken over by machines with lower wage armies replacing them to labor at work that took less if any skill. Consumers got more, if not better goods at cheaper prices. To the weaver, this was no improvement. Protests and sabotage happened but as it was only a minority harmed at any one time, they were not all that effective. It was such that the term “luddite” is considered an insult by most.
This has been seen in many industries as technology changes a society, from the beginnings of agriculture to the computer. What Vonnegut saw was the end of productive employment for most if not all of humanity.
If the computer could do machining, what could it not do? In Player Piano, all factory work is gone and even higher-level skills get eliminated as soon as machinery and programming is perfected. A small elite controls everything.
Needless to say, class conflict is a problem. What to do with all the superfluous workers? In the novel the government employs them in a grand make-work scheme called the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps. It is known by the slang name as the Reeks and Wrecks.
The army also absorbs a significant portion of the idle manpower. Class conflicts are obvious as they are not trusted with weapons until overseas.
Alas, when people have no feeling of being needed, as in Player Piano, there can be nothing but class resentments. A revolution is attempted, but the masses do not really know what they want and it collapses.
So how does Player Piano hold up today? Actually, the flavor is antiquated. It’s as if the culture of the 50s did not end even though the society was turned on its head. Dad goes out to work on Reeks and Wrecks and comes home to dinner with mom and the kids and then the family watches TV. A woman’s place is in the home, other than maybe as a secretary. The idealized domesticity of mid-century never stopped.
Vonnegut did not predict the digital revolution. All the techno programming is done on magnetic tape. This is understandable in the early 50s. Had anyone predicted even the 8-Track revolution back then, he could be considered no less than a prophet.
So why should Player Piano resonate today? The author may have missed the science, but as to the progress of technology, he was dead on. Machines advance daily in areas previously the province of the human.
Some improvements are devoutly to be wished and bring benefits many of us have experienced. Robotic surgery is getting better all the time. It will not be long before it is completely autonomous. I assure you, we all want more precise, ergo less painful and invasive operations.
The bad news is good-bye jobs. You may have heard that that JC Penney will be eliminating checkout clerks in it stores. This is driven by the chain’s struggle to be profitable. If the people versus machine question comes down to corporate viability, we lose.
Automated checkout is the visible aspect of job destruction. Trades we might think safe are on the chopping block.
There is, on the web, a series of videos by speakers on their area of expertise called TED Talks. TED stands for “bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design.” Some of the orations are brilliant and in others, at least all the words are pronounced correctly.
One all too interesting talk, posted in September is by a Mr. Andrew McAfee. McAfee is principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business, MIT Sloan School of Management. His resume is hardly limited to that job. He has been studying tech for a long time.
In his talk, there are two quotes that stand out. First, “Just in the past couple years, we've seen digital tools display skills and abilities that … eat deeply into what we human beings do for a living.” Second, “Within [our lifetimes], we're going to transition into an economy that … doesn't need a lot of human workers. Managing that transition is going to be the greatest challenge that our society faces.” They should change his title to the Kurt Vonnegut Professor of Human Redundancy.

If those quotes don’t scare you, this one should. The first decade of the 21st Century “is the only time we have on record where there were fewer people working at the end of the decade then at the beginning.” Andy is telling us the great job destruction has already started. Next big quote, “We ain’t seen nothing yet.”

So okay, tech can’t do everything. You might say over the road truck drivers are safe. McAfee got to ride in the Google autonomous Prius. The driverless car worked flawlessly on the highway. Andy does not see it a long time from the Prius to the Mack Truck. Maybe the young fellow thinking of driving the big rigs should contemplate another trade, but what?

After his scary discussion how jobs are toast, he ends with a mealy mouthed pronouncement how humans will be freed up to use our creativity to solve our problems. Moi, I think trends that already exist will continue.

Like Vonnegut’s dystopia, we will move towards more made work. Some of it might be continuous fixing of bridges and roads as in Reeks and Wrecks. The bigger model is the wars we are now pretending to fight. The War on Drugs will continue and expand. A nation that is half drug users and half drug fighters sops up a large number of unemployed. The War on Terror can do the same, fighting opponents real and imagined. Does not the nation cry out for the TSA keeping kids safe as they get on the school bus?

I have not yet mentioned the most disturbing point made by Mr. McAfee. Andrew noted an algorithmically generated piece published in the Wall Street Journal that he called "perfect." Now, it was perfect in the sense that there were no mistakes. It could not be called stylistically excellent. H.L. Mencken does not fear from the grave for his reputation. Still, where this is going is obvious. I am sure the editor of this publication is thinking about the progress of that algorithm with every article I file.
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on December 19, 2012
Player Piano is set in a futuristic America where a supercomputer slots human beings into jobs on the basis of one criterion: IQ. It is written both as a satire of modern knowledge economies and as an exhortation to future engineers and leaders that they be certain to always preserve the inherent rights and `humanness' of humanity even against the boon of technological progression.

A man of many talents, author Kurt Vonnegut acquired his love for science fiction and his understanding of the nature of scientific advancement from his undergraduate education studying undergraduate chemistry and mechanical engineering as well as from his time working at General Electric. His social commentary on religion is founded on his experiences in the Unitarian church and his military insight is derived from his experiences fighting in WWII. Furthermore, it is no secret that Vonnegut was a secular humanist, meaning that he holds to, as the American Humanist Association defines it, "a naturalistic philosophy that rejects supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion." The existential nature of Vonnegut's philosophical belief system is echoed in his commentary on human happiness and capability.
The theme of Player Piano can be summarized as an exhortation from Vonnegut to the reader: "Engineers, think about what technological `progress' means for humanity. Managers, think about what it is that makes humans `human' and decide whether or not it is something worth preserving. Make certain that each new technological advancement doesn't strip humanity of its humanness, because once technological progress happens, it can't un-happen." This emphasis on `humanity' and `humanness' throughout Player Piano is no doubt born out of his personal belief system. One character reflects on the automated `Player Piano' across from him in the bar where he stands and says, "makes you feel kind of creepy, don't it Doctor, watching them keys go up and down? You can almost see a ghost sitting there playing his heart out" (Vonnegut 32). Vonnegut uses this imagery throughout the book to discuss the feeling of unhappiness inherent in human idleness and feelings of unimportance when being replaced. But rather than focus entirely on the dangers of scientific advancement, Vonnegut makes sure to portray the good that technology brings in a positive light. The tension between the good of technology and the bad (reflected in the ending of the book) is masterfully done.
Vonnegut captures the essence of a knowledge-based economy in an automated future. His wit and sarcasm are simultaneously light hearted and haunting. This book is a must read not only for Vonnegut fans, but for anyone who enjoys a good, funny-yet thoughtful read. After all, the `value of humanity' is a universal idea, is it not?
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on June 2, 2013
We are in the future, not too far off though, after the second industrial revolution. Machines have now replaced repetitive and monotonous work. It is a time of seemingly forever peace and it is believed that no war will ever occur again. Paul, the main character, lives in Ilium. The city is geology separated by a river, on one side lives the Managers and Engineers, on the other side the common people. The disjuncture is not only physical but also social, common people and the elite ( Manager and Engineer ) almost never mingle.

The plot is separated in two distinct perspectives. On one we follow Dr. Paul Proteus, the manager of the Ilium Works. Paul is an interesting character, he can't seem to ever make a decision by himself, yet he is charming. He is living in the shadow of his father who had had an impressive and very satisfying career. He just goes with the flow of life, he's got dreams but can't seem to find the courage to realize any of them. He is definitely uncomfortable with his current position and the responsibilities this life requires of him. The second part is about Dr Halyard, a diplomat, whose current assignment is to be the guide of Shah, a sect leader of six million members. We can appreciate what america has become through the eyes of an outsider, whose values are totally different.

Since the second industrial revolution, Machines have stolen the job from the bulk of the citizen, leaving them with no purpose in life. Besides taking their job, most of the political decision making are now done by machines and the social status of a person is determined by their IQ test result. The common people have a steady income while doing nothing very fulfilling, most of them have no job anymore. The current political situation feels as though it has evolved to communism.

Despite the seriousness of the subject discussed, it is delivered with Vonnegut's witty and dark humour which is so special of him. The story deals about social classes, political systems and the purpose of life and the need of being needed. Although I have read other books treating those themes with a better storyline, the quality of the prose alone is a good reason to read the book. It feels like a breeze, you will laugh but at a deeper level you will also realize that it holds a darker and more serious subject. Enjoy !
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