Player Piano

The redheaded youngster next to Paul looked at his badge. “Oh, Doctor Proteus. I’ve heard of you. How are you, sir?”

“Paul, not Doctor. Fine, how are you—” he studied his companion’s badge—“Doctor Edmund L. Harrison, of the Ithaca works?”

“Get to know the man next to you,” said the loudspeaker. “Don’t talk to anyone you know.”

“Married?” said Paul.

“That’s what you’re here for, to get to know new people, to broaden your horizons,” said the loudspeaker.

“Nossir, I’m en—“

“The more contacts you make here at the Meadows,” said the loudspeaker, “the more smoothly industry will function, co-operationwise.”

“I’m engaged,” said Doctor Harrison.

“An Ithaca girl?”

“Two seats right over here, gentlemen—over in the corner. Right over there. Let’s get our seats quickly, because there’s a full program, and everybody wants to get down to knowing everybody else,” said the loudspeaker.

“Nossir,” said Doctor Harrison. “Atlanta.” He looked at Paul’s badge again. “Aren’t you the son of—“

“Now that we’re all seated and getting to know one another, how about a little song to pull us all together?” said the loudspeaker.

“Yes, he was my father,” said Paul.

“Turn to page twenty-eight of the Song Book,” said the loudspeaker. “Twenty-eight, twenty-eight!”

“He was quite a man,” said Harrison.

“Yes,” said Paul.

“ ‘Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie!’ “ shouted the loudspeaker. “Find it? Twenty-eight! All right, now, let’s go!”

Kurt Vonnegut wrote his first novel from within a limbo period of changing technologies, hanging unbalanced between the heritage of pre-war (hu)manual industrialism and the embryonic stages of the computerised industrialism speedily to come. His protagonist, Paul Proteus, named for the precognitive shape-shifter of Homer’s Odyssey, sees only a static future; he is the First Son of his culture, heir-in-waiting to a world created by his father but progressively more dissatisfied by the constraints he finds himself and his fellow man subjected to and which can only lead to one entirely logical conclusion.

Player Piano
delights in a central paradox and applies its implications with cruel relish. Mankind’s ingenuity is so great that it has created a world that needs no ingenuity – a concept brilliantly embodied by the casually inventive Bud Calhoun, a man whose genius is rewarded by self-effected obsoletion*. It is a world that awards status only to those with the most quantifiable of high talents, but without really putting them to use, and which consigns all others, the overwhelming majority, to meaningless make-work roles where there is no work left to be done. Whether ingenuity remains is incidental; in this rest stop on the journey towards a typically problematic utopia to come, we encounter ample evidence that raw talent and individuality still burns within the suppressed masses, but suppressed is what they are and what it seems they will remain.

Private First Class Hacketts was in the middle of the First Squad of the Second Platoon of B Company of the First Battalion of the 427th Regiment of the 107th Infantry Division of the Ninth Corps of the Twelfth Army, and he stayed right there, and put his foot down every time the drummer hit the bass drum.

“Dee-veesh-ee-own—“ cried the Division Commander through a loudspeaker.

“Reg-ee-ment—“ bawled four regimental commanders.

“’Tal-ee-own—“ cried twelve battalion commanders.

“Cump-neee—“ shouted thirty-six company commanders.

“Batt-reeee—” shouted twelve battery commanders.

“P’toon—“ muttered a hundred and ninety-two platoon commanders.

“Hacketts,” said Private First Class Hacketts to himself.


And Hacketts did, hut, two.

As is often the case with speculative fiction, technology advanced in different ways and rates than Vonnegut could have guessed at; but in terms of theme and the humanity of his characters he hits the target dead on. The reluctantly idle population, spoiled for empty leisure but held in place as much by their apathy as by democratic oppression; the supposedly egalitarian upper class which remains, of course, a nepotistic old-families network; and the fired (or sometimes quit) up idealists, searching for a crack to slip into to split open the façade, a crack which doesn’t exist or is manufactured for them, so they can expend their energies for the good of society – it all rings true.

Paul’s gradual conviction of his misplacement in the world sets him on a course towards genuine independence, but not one he is permitted to realise. He becomes used as Proteus was, held in place until forced to predict a future for his captors, first by the one side, then the other; but, whether the original Proteus’ revelations could guide decisions or merely reflect inevitabilities, the futures Paul announces are dictated to him by the holder rather than something he summons from within.

The text is filled with examples of dehumanising cruelty. Subtle, such as in the aftermath of the Shah’s visit to a statistically average American citizen and his fracturing family (one of many quite vivid minor characters); or explicit, such as when describing how Paul is let out of a cell only “to eliminate the wastes accrued in the process of his continued existence as an animal”. But in fact Paul is less than even this – he becomes a tool, a machine used to make terrorists obsolete just as other machines have done to loyal citizens. His genuine honesty about his treasonous disillusionment and his free will to act in kind are simultaneously endorsed and invalidated by the actions of those around him, bestowing the freedom to be himself and the clear knowledge that he can have no impact of his own under any circumstances whatsoever.

Coming back to Player Piano over the weeks of reading, I was invariably entertained by what I found; even to the last sitting, although in gobbling up the final fifth or so of the book I found the climax to be rather abrupt by comparison to the deeper, more leisurely approach. While the ramifications of the revolution hit their mark perfectly – success seeding failure, even suggesting that there can be never be a turning back for a society gone this far down its path – the opportunity for Paul to ruminate on them as fully as he did the culture his father made is lost between chapters. While observing his sad realisation at length might not be a pleasure for Paul, I suspect it would have been a bitter-sweet one for us.

A ripple of whispers and a creaking of chairs under shifting bottoms told Paul that something had gone wrong with the lie detector’s indicator.

The judge hammered with his gravel. “Order in the court. The court engineer will please check the tubes and circuits.”

The engineer wheeled his steel cart up to the witness stand, and impersonally tested the connections to Paul. He took meter readings at various points along the circuits, slid the grey box out from under the witness stand, took out each of the tubes and tested them, and put everything back together, all in less than two minutes. “Everything is in order, your honour.”

“The witness will please tell what he considers to be a lie,” said the judge.

“Every new piece of scientific knowledge is a good thing for humanity,” said Paul.

“Object!” said the prosecutor.

“This is off the record—a test of the instrument,” said the judge.

“Swung to the left, all righty,” said the engineer.

“Now a truth,” said the judge.

“The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings,” said Paul, “not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems.”

“Swung to T, O.K.,” said the engineer, tucking a metal clip just a little deeper into Paul’s armpit.

“Now, a half-truth,” said the judge.

“I am contented,” said Paul.

The spectators chuckled appreciatively.

And so did I.


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