Thursday, January 22, 2009

Player Piano (1952)

A few days ago I finished the latest pick for our yet-to-be-named literary society, Player Piano (1952) by Kurt Vonnegut. Of course, I don't want to say too much about it since 1) most of my friends in the literary society also read this blog; 2) most of those friends also have not read the book yet; 3) I don't want to say everything I want to say about the book here, because then why even have a literary society!? (Answer: to drink beer with friends while all holding a copy of the same book.)

Anyway, Player Piano is a dystopic science fiction novel in which, after a great war, mechanization and efficiency have reached new heights and all manual labor is performed by computerized machines. The only people who have jobs are those with high enough IQs to be managers or engineers. Everyone else is either in the army or the Reconstruction & Reclamation Corps (also known as the Reeks and Wrecks), which is kind of an overstaffed city maintenance crew. [Sadly (or happily, I guess), women are left out of this whole new social structure and still do things the old way, by just marrying somebody and then being whatever class he happens to be. I like Vonnegut, but he just isn't all that imaginative when it comes to female characters...] Our hero is Dr. Paul Proteus, an engineer and the son of the man who started the whole mechanization scheme rolling. Paul is dissatisfied and wants to make a change, but will one of the key gears have any luck at leaving the rest of the machine behind?

This is Vonnegut's first novel, and while his trademark humor and cynicism are here, they are more hidden in a traditional narrative than in some of his other novels. Overall this is very readable and often surprisingly topical look at modern society, seen from the future-gazing lenses of 1952.

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