Kurt Vonnegut Challenge Review: Player Piano

player pianoOy.

If this were my first and only exposure to Vonnegut, I’m not sure I’d be a fan.

I have to take into consideration that it was written in 1952. Over 60 years ago! In some ways, it doesn’t seem possible that it was written that long ago, but even as a very forward thinker, Vonnegut’s depiction of the social norms of the day definitely feel dated. It’s a very male-centered book; the main female character, Anita, is conniving and unfaithful and fake. The other women in the novel play very minor roles, none of them heroic. Mainly just wallpaper in the background of this man’s man’s man’s world.

Here’s a brief summary of the novel for those of you not familiar … the country has been segmented by smarties vs. dummies. The smart people (e.g. engineers) are the wealthy and powerful. Most of the other jobs have been taken over by machines, rendering most of the rest of the population useless. Dr. Paul Proteus is the big cheese in the upstate NY town of Ilium, the head of the Ilium works. He’s slated for big things (A juicy new job in Pittsburgh is basically his for the taking – I can’t decide if this is supposed to be funny, or if Pittsburgh was a bigger deal back in the 50’s than it is today). His wife, Anita, is power hungry and definitely along for the ride on Paul’s career. When he begins to languish and question things, no one around him is too happy about it. He visits a bar on the other side of town and begins to see through a new filter. He realizes that society is broken because of the machines, and that he is part of the problem. He decides he’d like to be part of the solution.

However, that’s not easily accomplished when you’re so entrenched in society — and such a large part of it. Player Piano tells the story of how Paul is manipulated by both sides and becomes a figurehead for the revolution.

OK, so that’s basically the gist. Vonnegut was a smart guy, so there’s things happening at a level above my own intelligence. But I was smart enough to pick up on the metaphor of the Player Piano, which shows up in the bar Paul visits. Society is on autopilot due to the machines, like the piano that plays itself. The musician is now obsolete.

If you’re expecting the random drawings, killer one-liners and just general awesome that are the hallmarks of the other Vonnegut novels, they’re not here. There’s a satirical sub-plot involving a Shah who is touring the U.S. has completely miscontrues what he is seeing, which is somewhat amusing. For instance, he calls all of the non-functioning members of society “Takaru” which is his country’s word for “Slave.” Even though he gets corrected, he continues to address the citizens by this term.

Up next: The Sirens of Titan!


  1. I am a huge fan of his work, and as this was his first novel, I’m guessing he was still evolving as a writer. My favorite is “Breakfast of Champions” which hits about mid-way through his canon. Thanks for your comments!

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