Recent Reading: Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut

I read Slaughterhouse Five a while back because it was highly recommended by Chuck Palahniuk, and because another of my favorites authors, Douglas Coupland, is a big fan of Vonnegut. So, when I saw this book on the for-sale rack (for a quarter) at my local library, I decided to pick it up. I’m in the lull between the end of classes and final exams at seminary, so it’s high time for some fiction for the sake of sanity.

Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut

This book will be added to my list of recommended reading on culture and technology. Last year, I accidentally stumbled upon Hard Times, by Charles Dickens, and discovered that it was a story that dealt with scientism; it turns out the same thing has happened again with Player Piano.

In the story, another dystopia by the way, Vonnegut depicts a future for America in which the scientists and engineers rule the day. Machines have been invented to do essentially all menial labor that there is to do, which has left no work for the working class. Everything about your life is essentially predetermined by your IQ score. If you are smart enough, you go to college and become something of value and significance; if you are not, you join the army or some belittling government corps. If you really want to make it, you must become an engineer. And as an engineer, you care for the machines that essentially rule the culture. Just be careful not to invent a machine that will take your place. If you do your job well, you might climb your way up the managerial bureaucracy.

The story centers around one such engineer named Paul Proteous (a great name by the way) who happens to be the son of one of the most successful engineers in the history of the country – the engineer given primary credit for the current machine-driven system. Paul begins to consort with folks from ‘across the river’ and learns how miserable common people are in this system, a fact that he has been oblivious to all of his life heretofore. He, along with an engineer-friend that has given up on the system, meet a Protestant minister who tells them of his belief that the lower class are primed for the arrival of a messiah that will deliver them from their low estate of, basically, having nothing of any significance to do.

From this point on, Paul is caught on the threshold of two worlds and must decide what he truly thinks of the cultural system as it is. Should he continue to live his successful life without experiencing any sense of significance or purpose, or could he perhaps rebel against it.

As his name is Proteous, the name given to him by his father, the most famous name in the land, he is ultimately recruited to serve as a nominal messiah to lead to lower class in a rebellion against the bureaucracy. Still, he is torn between two worlds and must decide to which side he will pledge his ultimate allegiance, realizing that this coup may cost him everything. I won’t give away the ending, so I’ll stop there.

Vonnegut wrote this story in the 1950s, and his prescience is astounding to some degree. I am always amazed by the people that can see things coming. Personally, I find that I am good at diagnosing problems, but not so good at seeing where those problems will lead to down the road. This book belongs with Animal Farm, Brave New World, and 1984 in relation to dystopian visions of the future. It hits upon the basic question of what man is meant to do, and what man will do when that meaning and purpose is taken away – in this case by gadgets.

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