Player Piano

January 22, 2017 by Lucian Mogosanu

Player Piano represents Vonnegut's attempt to predict the future, a prediction which has proven to be mostly accurate with respect to present day. Its ingredients are typically Vonnegutian in nature, at least as far as I can tell; and I can't tell too much, since I've only read Cat's Cradle in addition to this one. But let's stick to the subject.

The first ingredient of the novel is maybe Vonnegut's obsession with the war, or at least a war. War in general makes people go nuts, but this war in particular coerced people, and in particular the so-called "engineers and managers"1 into genuine ingenuity and whatnot. So the second ingredient follows naturally: a post-war America with its social particularities and peculiarities.

The third ingredient is a narrative told from a mostly-omni-scient point of view, in fact comprising two (eventually) interweaving narrative threads. Player Piano tells the story of Dr.2 Paul Proteus, "engineer and manager", but as an aside provides an outside perspective through the Shah of Bratpuhr, who just happens to be visiting the US during the unfolding of the novel's main events. The Shah and his nephew, and in fact the whole thread is a plot device created to illustrate that America's "progress" is for naught3.

The fourth ingredient is satire. Satire of American democracy, satire of "progressive" "liberal" socialism, satire of endless PR, and, the most visionary and the best of them all, satire of "computers will make the world a better place"4. To quote:

"This is EPICAC XIV," said Halyard. "It's an electronic computing machine -- a brain, if you like. This chamber alone, the smallest of the thirty-one used, contains enough wire to reach from here to the moon four times. There are more vacuum tubes in the entire instrument than there were vacuum tubes in the State of New York before World War II." He had recited these figures so often that he had no need for the descriptive pamphlet that was passed out to visitors.

Khashdrahr told the Shah.

The Shah thought it over, snickered shyly, and Khashdrahr joined him in the quiet, Oriental merriment.

"Shah said," said Khashdrahr, "people in his land sleep with smart women and make good brains cheap. Save enough wire to go to moon a thousand times."

and

[...] "In order to be self-supporting, a book club has to have at least a half-million members, or it isn’t worth setting up the machinery -- the electronic billers, the electronic addressers, the electronic wrappers, the electronic presses, and the electronic dividend computers.”

[...]

"Well, a fully automatic setup like that makes culture very cheap. Book costs less than seven packs of chewing gum. And there are picture clubs, too -- pictures for your walls at amazingly cheap prices. Matter of fact, culture's so cheap, a man figured he could insulate his house cheaper with books and prints than he could with rockwool. Don't think it’s true, but it’s a cute story with a good point."

"And painters are well supported under this club system?" asked Khashdrahr.

"Supported -- I guess!" said Halyard. "It's the Golden Age of Art, with millions of dollars a year poured into reproductions of Rembrandts, Whistlers, Goyas, Renoirs, El Grecos, Dégas, da Vincis, Michelangelos ..."

"These club members, they get just any book, any picture?" asked Khashdrahr.

"I should say not! A lot of research5 goes into what's run off, believe me. Surveys of public reading tastes, readability and appeal tests on books being considered. Heavens, running off an unpopular book would put a club out of business like that!" He snapped his fingers ominously. "The way they keep culture so cheap is by knowing in advance what and how much of it people want6. They get it right, right down to the color of the jacket. Gutenberg would be amazed."

and

No cabs had bothered to meet the unpromising train. Paul phoned the cab company, but no one answered. He looked helplessly at the automatic ticket vendor, the automatic nylon vendor, the automatic coffee vendor, the automatic gum vendor, the automatic book vendor, the automatic newspaper vendor, the automatic toothbrush vendor, the automatic Coke vendor, the automatic shoeshine machine, the automatic photo studio, and walked out into the deserted streets on the Homestead side of the river.

and I could go on for a long time with this.

The climax of the whole story is reached when a bunch of derps delude themselves that they can change "the system" by throwing a revolution. And they do, and the coup sort of succeeds, that is, until the slaves start going back to the initial process of making their own lives miserable. Other than that, Vonnegut might have gone wrong in a place or two; I don't remember exactly where and how, so that makes it mostly unimportant.

To sum this up, the novel is recommended reading for those who don't understand why we sane people don't want to run Windows and rely on Google, Wikipedia and "on the Cloud" in general. To further sum it up, Vonnegut's novel is a nice story of how technology is fundamentally a tool of oppression, and he who controls it is invested with a great amount of power, at least until it all fails.


  1. Had Vonnegut published Player Piano as his last novel in the 2000s, instead of his first in the '50s, he could have called them "CTOs and CEOs" or some other equally boring Newspeak designation. Fortunately for him, he expired shortly before the 2010s came about. 

  2. They're all Doctors and whatchamacallthem over there. 

  3. What is Bratpuhr, and who are the Kolhouri, you ask? Well, as fictional as they are, they also serve to emphasize a certain misconception of the USian ilk, that on one hand there's America, and on the other there's the rest of the Third World, with no Second World in-between worth knowing and exploring to the averager. Bratpuhr is, like Romania or Papua New Guinea, a sort of soup: there's no oil there, and thus no need for them to be "civilized"* by the "civilized"* Western folk.

    ---
    * By which I mean, in the words of the great Frank Zappa, overeducated shitheads. 

  4. With variations such as "Make America Great Again" and whatever else you will. 

  5. Research, like in today's "big data", "analytics", "data science", machine "learning", etc., etc. Basically all the tools required to reduce the average person to a statistical model

  6. In case you were wondering, this is exactly how the so-called movie and music industries have been working in the last five decades or so. But-but-but, what about the Beatles and the Pink Floyds, the King Crimsons and the Frank Zappas spawned by these industries? you will ask.

    Sure, these were honest outliers, but the only thing their success did was to further the idiotic belief that there is a recipe to create art. This is of course a clear semantic contradiction, since art is by definition the very best there is and culture is by definition that which distinguishes humans from sheep. Once the best becomes accessible to the masses, it stops being the best, "the best being accessible" being itself a paradox.

    As somewhat of a side note, the quote can also be interpreted as machines becoming the actual creators of art, which is fashionable nowadays with Google using data-based techniques to imitate poetry, music and whatnot. 

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