Player Piano: Book of the Month March 2023

Player Piano cover art


Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, was published in 1952. It’s a dystopia with a wry sense of humour, which is atypical for the genre. But dystopia and farce both extrapolate events to disastrous and absurd degrees. Vonnegut makes highly effective use of this point of crossover.

Player Piano is set in an alternate 1950s. Technological advances in machinery have led the US to victory in an horrific World War III. The logic of machine-does-best is now being applied to peacetime society.  

An elite few go to college and become engineers and managers. They oversee the machines that do the labour men used to do. (Noting it’s men who work outside the home in this society – it’s the 1950s, remember). With no work, the men are offered 25 years either in the army or a maintenance crew called the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, or ‘Reeks and Wrecks’.

From the position of the engineer and manager classes, the former working man has everything he needs. He has food, ‘a place to live and warm clothes. He has what he’d have if he were running a stupid machine, swearing at it, making mistakes, striking every year, fighting with the foreman, coming in with hangovers’ (37). And yet, things don’t come off as seeming entirely ideal…

A dystopia for our times?

Despite being over 70 years old, a dystopia where the robots take our jobs reads as timely. It’s relevant when ChatGPT is threatening the livelihood of copywriters, self-checkouts are replacing supermarket cashiers and you’re more likely to buy your train ticket from a machine than a ticket office. You can see why Vintage saw fit to republish it last year.

This is an examination of the nature of work in the utopian tradition of William Morris. Morris differentiated between ‘useful work’ and ‘useless toil’, and in his utopia News from Nowhere there was none of the latter. It has been a theme with our other recent book choices too: How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell and Walden Two by B.F. Skinner.

Vonnegut’s redundant workers put it like this:

Man has survived Armageddon in order to enter the Eden of eternal peace, only to discover that everything he had looked forward to enjoying there, pride, dignity, self-resect, work worth doing, has been condemned as unfit for human consumption.

Player Piano, p.300

To modern readers, the automation in Player Piano is delightfully analogue. A master machinist’s movements are recorded onto tape in the same way a piano roll is recorded. The resulting tape loop is run through a machine, which can repeat the machinist’s actions as often as required. However, the principle transfers easily to our digital age. Vonnegut’s description of his protagonist Paul arriving at a train station late at night to find no cabs available to take him home reads as somewhat prescient:

He looked helplessly at the automatic ticket vendor, the automatic nylon vender, the automatic coffee vendor, the automatic gum vendor, the automatic book vendor, the automatic newspaper vendor, the automatic toothbrush vendor, the automatic Coke vendor, the automatic shoeshine machine, the automatic photo studio, and walked out into the deserted streets.

Player Piano, p.257

Then and now

As can be expected for a 70 year old novel, aspects of the book are dated. Labour is divided strictly by gender. Women are would-be homemakers and men are would-be machinists. The domestic work too is done in seconds by machines, leaving everyone ill at ease. In the middle classes, women are still homemakers but also do the prep for their engineer manager husbands. Anita, Paul’s wife, chooses and sets out his clothes for every occasion. She even writes a script ahead of an important meeting with his boss to ensure he’s briefed with all the best possible answers. Unfortunately for Anita, her goal of advancement within society doesn’t find a match in misfit Paul. He would rather get his hands dirty on a farm, until he discovers farms smell of manure, which spoils the idyll.

Then there is the possibly Orientalist depiction of the ‘Shah of Bratpuhr, spiritual leader of 6,000,000 members of the Kohouri sect’ (18). The Shah and his nephew-interpreter are given a tour of America. They serve as naïve outside observers, much like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes. The Shah calls out American citizens as slaves and their machines as false idols, to the eye-rolling of his tour guide who assumes he is too backwards to grasp the greatness of what he is seeing.

Anti-colonialist themes

Yet, Vonnegut clearly maps out how the prevailing American logic follows on from the colonisation of the continent and suppression of its indigenous people. He starts with something akin to a land acknowledgement:

Here in the basin of the river bend, the Mohawks had overpowered the Algonquins, the Dutch the Mohawks, the British the Dutch, the Americans the British. Now, over bones and rotten palings and cannon balls and arrowheads, there lay a triangle of steel and masonry buildings, a half-mile on each side – the Ilium Works.

Player Piano, p.3

The revolutionaries against the system align themselves with the indigenous people who suffered at the same hands before them. The preacher Lasher says ‘It had become a white man’s world, and Indian ways were irrelevant. It was impossible to hold the old Indian values in the changed world. The only thing they could do in the changed world was to become second-rate white men or wards of the white men’ (288). The revolutionaries name themselves after an indigenous religious movement that made an analogous ‘one last fight for the old values’ (also 288).

While this might be construed as cultural appropriation, it highlights that the logic of progress in contemporary US is a continuation of the colonial project. This progress-driven logic is under critique in Player Piano. Paul, finding his calling as the revolutionaries’ figurehead, declares ‘a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction’ (312). This appears ahead of its time when the fields of literary criticism and utopian studies are only just starting to get their heads around decolonisation.

Toxic work culture

As for the all-American spirit under critique, this is epitomised at the Meadows, a corporate getaway for engineers and managers. The teambuilding bullshit on display is horrible and horribly familiar. Workers are hurried from one bonding activity to another by a loudspeaker urging ‘Lunch! Remember the rule: get to know somebody new at each meal’ (193). ‘Five minutes to make new contacts, then the bonfire’ (219).

Central to the proceedings is an allegorical play, transparent and didactic as the worst of utopian novels.

Civilisation has reached the dizziest heights of all time!

(Music swells a little in volume.)

Thirty-one point seven times as many television sets as all the rest of the world put together!

(Music gets louder still.)

Ninety-three per cent of all the world’s electrostatic dust precipitators! Seventy-seven per cent of all the world’s automobiles! Ninety-eight per cent of its helicopters! Eighty-one percent of its refrigerators!

Player Piano, p.218

But what’s wrong with technology?

Player Piano is more than a treatise against technology. Vonnegut satirises the wholescale destruction of machines as well as the wholescale use of them. In the end, the revolutionaries get drunk and over-zealous:

Lou, boy – we forgot the bakery. Still poopin’ out bread like nobody’s business.”

“Can’t have it doin’ that,” said Lou. “Le’sh go knock the crap out of it.” […] “And, by God, here’sh ol’ Al to go with us. Where you been, y’ol’ horse-thief?”

“Blew up the goddam sewage ‘sposal plant,” said Al proudly.

Player Piano, p.326

Vonnegut’s argument is for nuance, in contrast to ‘the old Meadows team spirit’ where ‘the object of competition was total victory, with mortifying defeat the only alternative imaginable’ (309). This all-or-nothing logic is binary thought, ones and zeros. A language for machines, Vonnegut suggests, but not for humanity.

If you’re in Bristol, UK, you can join an in person discussion of this book! Come along to the next Bristol Utopian Book Collective meeting on 3 April 2023.