After World War III, the world has begun to rely more and more on machines and automation. This has led to a divided society: most people don’t have to work and spend their lives with having pretty much all decisions made for them, while the small elite are managers and oversee the machines. Paul belongs to the latter group, but isn’t entirely satisfied by state of things. That feeling is exacerbated when he is visited by his old friend Ed who takes him into the part of town where the masses live. They stumble on a resistance movement and find themselves thinking critically about the way things are for the first time of their lives.
Player Piano feels outdated in some ways, but other ways are still pretty current. Not bad for a novel that’s 65 years old, but it won’t become a favorite of mine regardless.
Futures envisioned in a past feel a little dusty more often than not. And it’s no surprise that the machines envisioned by Vonnegut are not even close to what machines are like today – and what they’re capable of today. But for me, the most interesting and important part about the future he writes about is not how those machines actually work but what it is done with them.
And that’s where the book feels a little outdated: because work is absolutely constructed as a privilege in it, as a way of giving people meaning – without which they are absolutely lost. If he’d write the book today, it would probably be about people are still worked into the ground and barely paid for their efforts despite the fact that automation would guarantee a standard of living with less work than people would probably have thought possible in Vonnegut’s time.
That being said, I can agree with the general idea that people need meaning in their lives. And meaning can’t just be to be consumers, even if that consumption is provided for them.
And what does feel absolutely current is Paul’s desire to return to a machine-free time where people were still in touch (literally) with the world around them, the food they grow, the animals they keep. That’s something I can definitely relate to, although I know that I would be a horrible farmer. Still, the wish is there to grow and tend and to do it myself.
Unfortunately the novel treats its women really badly and that certainly took away from my enjoyment of it. And I remember reading Slaughterhouse-Five and being taken in by the utter compassion in it and by the language Vonnegut uses. Both of those things were missing for me, the latter more than the former. That may be due because Player Piano was his first novel, but it made the book less engaging for me in any case.
Summarizing: It’s not a bad book, not at all, but it just didn’t work that well for me.