Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Function: noun

1: destruction of an employer’s property (as tools or materials) or the hindering of manufacturing by discontented workers
2: destructive or obstructive action carried on by a civilian or enemy agent to hinder a nations war effort
3: a: an act or process tending to hamper or hurt b: deliberate subversion

Player Piano was Kurt Vonnegut’s first published novel (1952). It describes a future America where a second Industrial Revolution has run amuck and a third one is nascent.  A schism is growing between people with “know how” (particularly engineers, but generally those with higher IQs) and those without (who are assigned menial jobs or to the army, or to the reeks and wrecks – kind of civilian manual labor force). To me, this sounded a lot like Huxley’s “Alphas” and “Deltas” from A Brave New World. (in fact, I read that Vonnegut ‘cheerfully admitted’ ripping off plot elements from that classic. BUT, there is no Soma drug in Player Piano to keep everyone pacified, and you don’t hear citizens walking around proclaiming “I’m glad to be in the Reeks and Wrecks!” as Huxley’s Deltas did.

The “upper class” of engineers and “smart people” enjoys greater privileges than their less gifted brethren, and the novel’s protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus, and his upwardly mobile wife, Anita, are no exception. Proteus, however, is ironically smart enough to sense something is not right with the way things are, and has second thoughts about being a willing part of this social structure. He learns of a growing “resistance” movement in opposition to the
current state of affairs, and eventually becomes swept up in it.

Part of the consequences of this is that he is condemned as a saboteur – the worst thing one can be in this dystopian society.  This term is particularly apropos considering the popularly accepted origin of the word. Legend has it that, in the early years of the actual Industrial Revolution, disgruntled French peasants, who were gradually losing their livelihood due to the emergence of weaving machines, would destroy them by throwing their wooden shoes (“sabots”) into the works of the machines. (below: Sabots – I can’t imagine they’re very comfortable)

This was a consequence of the first Industrial Revolution, described by Proteus in the book as “devaluing muscle work.” The second Industrial Revolution is one that “devalues routine mental work.” Proteus’s secretary wonders aloud “do you suppose there’ll be a third Industrial Revolution?” To which he replies,  “A third one?  What would that be like?”  She says,“I don’t know exactly. The first and second ones must have been sort of inconceivable at one time.”    He says, “To the people who were going to be replaced by machines, maybe. A third one, eh? In a way, I guess the third one’s been going on for some time, if you mean thinking machines.  That would be the third revolution, I guess – machines that devaluate human thinking.”

While reading this book, I often caught myself pausing and kind of staring off into space as I pondered some of the ideas and themes within.  It’s a good book that can do that to the reader, I think.  The subject matter was somewhat depressing to me, as a card-carrying rat-race participant, but it’s better to think about these things instead of simply burying one’s head in the sand and “trying NOT to think about them.”

This book was also re-published with a different name (Utopia 14 – see pic below) to play to the Sci-Fi crowd and increase sales. I’m not sure which Vonnegut book I’ll read next, but I plan to continue to work my way through them this year…

What about you?  Have you read Player Piano or other books by Kurt Vonnegut?  What were your impressions and which were your favorites?


  1. Melody said,

    January 1, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    I’ve just read Slaughterhouse-Five, my first Vonnegut, and loved it. I was thinking of reading Breakfast of Champions next. What do you think?


  2. Jay said,

    January 1, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Hi Melody,
    Slaughterhouse Five was my first Vonnegut as well. I read Cats Cradle next, and it was lighter and had more humor. I’ve read Breakfast of Champions, but it wasn’t among my favorite Vonnegut works.

    One of the members of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club is a retired teacher of literature and she commented at one meeting that most students of KV begin with his short stories. That approach makes sense to me, and I’d recommend his short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House (maybe my favorite book of last year) as a good next step.



  3. Prongs said,

    January 3, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Ahhh I LOVE the cover picture you have!! I might have to go hunt down a copy of this! Player Piano is next on my list of Vonneguts to get around to! Super excited for it.


    • Jay said,

      January 4, 2011 at 7:23 pm

      Me too! I like both pictures. I think if you look at them long enough, you can actually be transported back to the 1950s…

      I just learned yesterday that the ( local) Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book club is discussing Player Piano later this month (they must’ve taken December off). I am looking forward to discussing it with that group – a few of which actually knew Vonnegut or his family.


      • Kian said,

        February 27, 2011 at 1:57 am

        I have read every Vonnegut novel, and I think Player Piano appeals to a certain type of person. It is very different than his other novels in that is it is much slower and less openly sarcastic. It does, however, make a poignant point about our reliance on technology and our future. I think everything Vonnegut read is a must read, but if I had to pick five books I would pick Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, Player Piano and Mother Night, in that order.


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