Education

Book review: Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

16 May , 2019  

The Automation Engineer reviews Player Piano: a 1952 novel depicting a dystopia of automation.

Definition of ‘player piano’: a self-playing, automated piano that uses a pneumatic or electro-mechanical mechanism to play pre-programmed music. The machines reached the height of their popularity in the 1920s.

One of the characters in Player Piano tells the story of how he is driven to sabotage by a ‘traffic safety education box’ attached to a lamppost outside his bedroom window:

Fo’ two years, ol’ loudmouth and me done lived together. An’ evah last time some’un come on pas’, they hits ‘at ‘lectric eye, and ol’ loudmouth, he just naturally gotta shoot off his big ba-zoo. ‘Cayful, now! Don’ you do this! Don’ you do that!’ Ol’ mangy dog come bah at three in the mornin’, and ol’ loudmouth jus’ gotta get his two cents wuth in. ‘If you drahve,’ he tells that ol’ mangy dog, ‘if you drahve, don’t drink!’ Then an ol’ drunk comes crawlin’ along, and ol’ gravelthroat tells him it’s a city ohdnance ev’y bicycle jus’ gotta have a re-flectah on the back.

The long-suffering citizen takes matters into his own hands and is jailed for five days.

It’s a funny moment in a funny book. And the satire still holds good today. Which of us has not felt similar frustration in the face of poorly realised – though well-intentioned – automation?

Player Piano, first published in 1952, is set in a future in which almost everything has been automated. A third world war has been fought and won by machines. Now, in the aftermath, industry has been entirely given over to robots. People, meanwhile, are divided into engineers and managers on the one hand and a dispossessed majority on the other – most ordinary folk joining either the army or a sort of odd-jobs employment service called the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps.

The book’s main character – Dr Paul Proteus – is one of the top brass: manager of the Works at Ilium, a fictional city in upstate New York. He is comfortably off, happily married and highly intelligent: in one of the novel’s early scenes he takes on a specially programmed robot in a game of checkers and causes it literally to have a meltdown.

Paul, however, has doubts. His best friend Ed – another brilliant engineer – appears to be going through some kind of mid-life crisis. Trips into the poorer parts of Ilium reveal a discontented citizenry, hard-drinking and simmering with violence. Professional colleagues are racked by the competitive spirit.

Though tipped for promotion to a position of national significance, Paul begins to yearn for a simpler life – and a healthier, more equal society. He starts reading about bargemen on the old ship canals. ‘He tapped the broad, naked chest of the hero on the book jacket. “Don’t make men like that any more.” He enquires about purchasing a small farm – a relic of former times protected by the terms of someone’s will from requisition by the new centralised, industrialised agriculture.

But Paul is not destined for the pastoral life. The course of the novel sees him swept along by forces altogether darker and more chaotic.

In some respects Player Piano is very much of its time – a fate to which futuristic fiction, ironically enough, seems particularly prone. Nothing dates it more than the details of the machines of the future. Vacuum tubes are much mentioned. All data are stored on punch cards. The machines that do the manufacturing in the Ilium Works are – of all things – ‘lathe groups’.

This doesn’t matter. Though a former mechanical engineering student, Vonnegut has not so much written a novel about technology as one about politics and society. If Player Piano is a critique, it is less a critique of automation per se than of the way in which it might – in the wrong circumstances –  figure as part of a totalitarian state.

Written just after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four and, the author admitted, heavily influenced by it, Vonnegut’s book shares with Orwell’s an anxiety that the trauma of war might drive nations in peace time towards potentially paranoid levels of social control. Orwell no doubt had his eye on Stalin’s consolidation of Soviet communism, Vonnegut on the rise of McCarthyism.

the-piano-player

Citizens in Player Piano are classified by I.Q. and job code numbers, information which is held at police stations as a matter of public record. Even the engineers are assigned specific jobs according to the results of their Achievement and Aptitude Profile graphs: ‘when the graduate was taken into the economy, all his peaks and valleys were translated into perforations on his personnel card.’

And when a machine is devised that can do the job, even an engineering or management job, as well as a person, that person is made redundant. ‘As an old joke had it, the machines had all the cards.’

But, as the novel’s characters collectively demonstrate, people resent, resist and find ways around their official classifications, however fairly accorded. The book’s pages are peppered with the schemes of hustlers, prostitutes, vandals and people going off-grid. Ilium’s prescribed social model does not sit well with its populace.

Player Piano is about many things: technology and industry, politics and social planning, even friendship and marriage. But above and beyond these it is about the difficult-to-account-for nature of human beings. Even Paul – the technocrat tempted to treason – does not fully understand his own motivations which, we are given plenty of cause to suspect, maybe as Oedipal as they would be remedial.

Like all good fiction writers, Vonnegut asks more questions than he answers. And in the case of this book that includes questions about automation that are even timelier today than they were at the time of writing, particularly in terms of the delicate relationship between technical expertise, education and employment.

But the book itself is no dry enquiry. It’s a rattling tale of hair-raising events. It’s simultaneously a slow probe into the workings of an unhappy, alienated mind. And, perhaps most effectively, it is a gallery portrait of miscellaneous, irrepressible urban lives, many of whom are to be found in the downtown saloon bar to which Paul is irresistibly drawn – and in the corner of which the player piano of the title stands, turning out its automatic tunes.

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Alex Byles

Alex Byles