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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Player Piano

Player Piano
by Kurt Vonnegut
(4/5 stars)

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.

The 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.

Dr. 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.