by Kurt Vonnegut
The best science fiction is the kind that still manages to be relevant
even after almost 60 years. Such is the case with Vonnegut's "Player
Piano," which explores our conflicted relationship with the machines we
create, how they can be both liberating and dehumanizing.
book takes place after a great war, presumably World War III, which
America won by designing high-tech (at the time) thinking machines.
Years later, these thinking machines handle pretty much everything from
making products to running the government. This has created a sort of
caste system where people are judged from a young age by certain tests.
Those who pass become part of the "haves"--engineers and
managers--while the rest become the "have nots" known as reek and recs.
Paul Proteus is the son of the man who first introduced the thinking
machines and over time has become disillusioned with them and the caste
system. When he goes across the bridge to the poor side of town he sees
how the other half lives and becomes determined to quit his high-paying
job and become a simple farmer. But soon Paul gets swept up into a
revolution against the machines.
What I like is how Vonnegut
creates this world dominated by a sort of benign fascism. In this
system people aren't killed or sent to concentration camps or even
forced to wear yellow stars; instead they're given modest homes and
televisions so they have something to occupy them. So the greatest
horror isn't storm troopers or secret police but boredom and a lack of
dignity that comes from having no purpose.
The mention of things
like vacuum tubes give the book a little dated feel and yet the core
concept is still highly relevant. Instead of giant thinking machines
using vacuum tubes we have tiny machines using microchips and robots and
now 3D printing. As automation becomes more prevalent it forces more
people either out of work or into menial minimum wage jobs. Barring a
global catastrophe, this automation is only going to become more
prevalent and more advanced until like in Vonnegut's world, we have
billions of people who have been rendered obsolete and no longer serve
any useful function.
In the "Star Trek" universe people turn all
this automation into something good by pursuing other life goals. Sadly
I tend to think Vonnegut's outlook is more realistic. But then I work
in Detroit, where you can see the effects of societal change with every
abandoned house and store front.
This was Vonnegut's first novel
and it lacks some of the playfulness of his later books. You don't have
the author's pithy "So it goes" or "Hi-Ho" or any of that. The
narrative feels a little long at times, especially concerning the shah
of some country visiting America. That subplot is included largely to
give readers a look at America beyond upstate New York, but it really
doesn't add that much. Plus it involves a lot of casual racism that was
commonplace in the 50s but would create quite a stir today.
Still for a first novel it is a fascinating read I would highly recommend.
That is all.