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?


“Bread and Circuses” – Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I was pleasantly surprised by this book.  One of the many benefits of my joining the blogging community this year is that I’ve been made aware of many more books than in previous years.  This book, and the Hunger Games Series was frequently touted by the book blogs that I browse.  It’s another YA book (I seem to have read a lot of them this year: Beastly, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Twilight, etc.) that is told in the first person by a young, teenaged girl.  Maybe hard for me to relate to – but this was a good, quick-moving story that held my attention.

Described in one place online as “Gladiator meets Project Runway” (well, that’s catchy but not really accurate), it is a “dystopian novel” set in a future North America, where the tyrannical capital city oppresses twelve provinces (“Districts”) that once had the audacity to rebel, an action that reduced the number of districts from thirteen to twelve.  As punishment, there is an annual “Hunger Games” where two youths (one boy, one girl) from each district are chosen (by a complicated lottery) to participate in a battle to the death (nice central government, huh?).  The result is an imaginative story which, though not wholly original in concept, is very well done (reminiscent of, for example, the Theseus & the Minotaur myths, with similarities to the gladiator contests of ancient Rome, with bloodthirsty tv audiences – think of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, The Running Man.  I was also reminded of the classic Shirley Jackson short story, The Lottery).

Oh, and the term “Bread and Circuses” comes down to us from the original satirist, Decimus Junius Juvenalis (commonly known as Juvenal) who lived in the 1st & 2nd Century A.D. who lamented that the once great Roman populace who “once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddle no more and long eagerly for just two things – bread and circuses.”  Read “gladiatorial games” for circuses.  This is a sentiment those in the Capital City of “Panem” (the fictional country in these novels) would be familiar with.  In fact (wow) I just realized that panem is the latin word for bread, as in “panem et circenses”… I’m sure that’s intentional.  At least I think I am.

below: a close-up of Katniss’s “Mockingjay” pin.  In the novels, the Mockingjay is a new species of bird, resulting from the unintended breeding of the government’s genetically engineered “Jabber Jays” and female Mockingbirds.

The book is the first of three in the series, followed by Catching Fire (which I’ve already downloaded and begun reading) and Mockingjay, which was released just over a month ago, and for which the buzz about pointed me to Hunger Games.  I won’t spoil any more of the plot in this post, but I would recommend it as an entertaining and diverting read, no matter what your age.

Author Suzanne Collins