I’ve been rereading some of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s best novels, starting with The Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse Five. This time, I go back to his first ever published novel, the darkly funny dystopia, Player Piano. The novel asks if human creations (technology and social institutions, say) inevitably become more important than the people they are intended to serve.
Title: Player Piano
Author: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Original Publication Date: 1952
Paul Proteus, an engineer and one of the elite in a mechanized, futuristic society, questions whether “progress” has resulted in a world that no longer serves the basic needs of humanity.
The stories in the margins of this book may be its strongest point, but explaining why the author’s wife turned to prostitution, or what happens to the society’s most average man, or where Proteus’s cellmate turns up during the revolution, would spoil the twisted fun.
Vonnegut has no illusions about any side in the conflicts he creates. Even if you predict the final twist, it remains effective, a compelling statement on the absurdity within human nature.
The opening drags somewhat, lingering on details we already understand.
Originality: 4/6. Dystopic questioning of where science and other advancements might go awry were not new in ’52, but Vonnegut creates a dark and funny version that reveals the darker sides of postwar society.
Story: 4/6 The plot begins slowly, but picks up, and progresses in a fairly straightforward fashion. Perhaps the strongest aspect is the manner in which apparently incidental details find their way back into the plot.
Characterization: 4/6. Vonnegut writes about ideas more than characters, but he handles his people competently, and with an accurate, if not always flattering view of human nature.
Imagery: 5/6. Terry Gilliam could have fun, I think, with a cinematic version of this world.
Emotional Response: 5/6. I enjoyed this novel more when I read it as a teenager, but it holds up. If you like your humour dark and absurdist, this will appeal to you.
Overall Score: 5/6. Vonnegut would go on to write better novels, but the basic elements for which he would later become famous can all be found in Player Piano. It’s a dated book, owing much to the 1950s, but his fictional world, with its vacuum-tube computers, postwar office and gender politics, and ubiquitous men’s lodges remains amusing, and its underlying thematic statements continue to speak to our society.
In total, Player Piano receives 32/42
Vonnegut turns the end of the world into a laugh riot in Cat’s Cradle and Galapagos, both of which will be reviewed later this summer.