Cover image of "Player Piano," Kurt Vonnegut's warning about automation.

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. So it goes with his first published novel, Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut’s still-timely warning about automation.

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. And in this classic novel, written nearly 70 years ago, Kurt Vonnegut’s warning about automation is disturbingly timely.

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut (1952) 352 pages ★★★★★

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”).

Few jobs still open to humans

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.

Kurt Vonnegut’s warning about automation

“[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.

I’ve also reviewed two of the author’s other novels:

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