Again I return to Vonnegut and am now recommending his first novel Player Piano. I was pleasantly surprised with this one. This is an incredible debut novel first published in 1952, making it now 70 years old this year. The story follows engineer Dr. Paul Proteus through a world that is near full-automation. Machines run practically everything and only a handful of engineers are needed to maintain the system alongside a group of managers. These managers and engineers believe themselves to be the elite while all others are employed by the government via joining the Army or by joining an organization called the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps playfully called the Reeks and Wrecks.
Being 70 years old, and Vonnegut himself passing away in 2007 mere months before the first iPhone was released, there was no way this novel could have predicted the development of the technology we know today. However, it does imagine a highly technical, although mechanic, world where humans are quickly replaced by machines to complete their work which leaves them few options and little excitement or pride in their lives. Everything is studied/surveyed en masse prior to anything being produced so everyone gets pre-fabricated houses with the same appliances and all entertainment is generalized and must fit pre-determined guidelines.
People take exams when they graduate/reach adulthood and are given a score that prescribes their future. The score, highly focused on IQ level, essentially tells them they can go to college to be an engineer or will have to choose either the Army or Reeks and Wrecks. Their IQ is public record and cannot be changed. Any discussion of anti-automation is considered treason. The word “saboteur” holds a special meaning and is considered the worst offense.
There is a lot packed into this one novel and it still speaks to much of what society grapples with today. Though machines may not be as prevalent, we have computers that can replace what were once people-operated jobs. The surveying of the public is now market research and we all have experienced the dreadful targeted ads. The Reeks and Wrecks would be considered Socialism and railed against politically, and many people are working multiple jobs for demeaning wages. This book was written at a time when the nation’s wealth was more equally distributed, so it is hard to imagine what Vonnegut would have had to say about the number of billionaires today who pay their frontline workers so little they need to utilize food stamps. But that is a rant for another day.
I think this novel holds up quite well now 70 years later. In fact, it may be one of Vonnegut’s best novels though it doesn’t get discussed as much as Slaughterhouse Five, Sirens of Titan, or Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut focused much of his work on societal observations and problems people faced or society faced as a whole. Player Piano seems to be the most direct that I’ve read yet. There are more I still need to read, and I will get to them eventually.