Thursday, 10 January 2013

Kurt Vonnegut - Player Piano (1952)

N.B.: This one is from the archives, but I feel it's worth preserving here, at least until I get round to putting up more reviews.

Player Piano was Vonnegut's first novel, and if this shows in a certain roughness of style, the author's voice was extraordinarily well developed, showing off his trademark mix of sardonic humour and good natured cynicism to good effect. In the book, the second industrial revolution has occured, so most manual labour is carried out by machines. Thus, the working class have been put out of jobs. People's worth to society is measured by machines which sort them according to IQ. Those smart enough get to join the elite, becoming engineers and managers. Those who aren't are sent off to join the army or the Reclamation and Reconstruction Corps, which is about as much fun as it sounds. They are bundled into nasty council houses, given wide-screen TVs to placate them and then forgotten by the rest of society. The engineers and managers justify themselves by saying that they've raised these people's quality of living, but the people have been robbed of the dignity of labour and feel ignored and marginalised by society. Basically, the book questions that all scientific progress is a good thing, saying that we should take the time to stop and ask ourselves if all this new technology is actually making people any happier. The novel warns against a society in which all a man's work, and, more saliently, all a man's THINKING, is done by machines instead of himself. In this day and age, I think these points resonate quite strongly. 

The book is not perfect, by any means. It came out in 1952, so naturally the science fiction side of it has dated quite badly, the machines are all miles and miles of wires, vaccum tubes and flasing lights. However, once you get past this, in it's own way it's actually quite salient in a number of ways, certainly I think a lot of the issues it raises are still relevant. And, before you accuse the book of simply espoucing Luddite-ism in the face of scientific advancement, it's worth reading through to the end because this aspect is actually dealt with quite nicely at the end. The novel's protagonist goes up against the system, but, unlike Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, which leaves the ending open, in Player Piano, there is a really good day-after-the-revolution sequence. Vonnegut sweeps you up in revolutionary fevour only to hit you with the punch-line at the end. Like the novel version of A Clockwork Orange, the focus of the book sweeps out to say something about human nature and the way society works. It's both funny and very affecting. Thus, whilst Player Piano is certainly one of the better 'Man vs Machine' science fiction novels, its central focus is on humanity, and is both cynical and hopeful. Many of the themes and ideas would be expanded upon and developed more succesfully in Vonnegut's later novels, but Player Piano has plenty to reccomend it on its own terms. It certainly reminded me where my intense dislike of those self-service checkout machines at Tesco comes from. 

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