book-reviews

Player Piano

by Kurt Vonnegut

Rating: ★★★★

Player Piano foretells efficiency. The wartime ingenuity of engineers and managers forged a peacetime utopia, in which nobody has to work. The most talented machine operators have been recorded so that automated steel can mimic them through the ages. Hours of gruelling labour have been saved. But savings in manpower are now best invested in efficient machines, not spent on men, and those saved from toil are also starved of it. University aptitude scores become the final say on a man's potential --- you need a doctorate to administrate almost anything, and administration is nearly all that there is left to do. The masses who once produced goods are tied up in either the empty drills of the [dis]armed forces or the make-work of loitering maintenance crews. Everyone is well supplied by the system, few people are useful, and nobody knows what to do.

As Vonnegut freely admits, Player Piano follows from Brave New World which itself follows from We. Each version of this fable refines the one before it. Just as Huxley contributes a character who does more than flirt with sanity, Vonnegut supplies shades of ambiguity missing from the earlier dystopias; he presents a world which still carries appeal to us. The poor design of some everyday machinery is not allowed to overshadow that the system is effective. It meets real demands, produces food, science, security and even art. Those valiant neo-Luddists we see rebel against the system still recognise that in their proud worker's paradise certain essential machinery should be kept --- like the automatic bakeries. The book also contains, rather than distaste, admiration for the brilliant engineering that goes into the design and repair of machines, even when those machines are for a misguided or harmful purpose.

In this world of machinery, Vonnegut writes humanity. Our protagonist, weary of the system which is so good to him, tours a range of reactions: latching on to personal sentimentality, seeking redemption in contact with the "common man", attempting to withdraw from society and finally joining in futile revolt against it. His supporting cast are alive with character, their quirks and foibles drawn from reality and not merely ham-handed motivations designed for the plot. Even the unnamed passers-by are human, and at scale. When the revolution comes, and the mob tears down the oppressive machinery, the day is not over before they are cheerfully repairing it. Comfort and security best self-respect and piety.

This is a novel which becomes ever less fictitious as it dates. The focus on manufacturing itself demonstrates this, as the very automation which was foretold has rendered such factory business of little relevance to modern employment. Those who are or were affected by such changes will find this book resounds with their experience, just as those who are frustrated by the encroachment of machines into daily life will find sympathy in it. But really this book is for the engineers and the managers, not the workers and customers. It is a warning that the inventive solutions they apply have real costs, and that offsets in money or goods do not redress harm to human dignity.