Player Piano

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Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Player Piano (vt Utopia 14). New York: Scribner's, 1952. New York: Dell, 1974.

The near-future world of PP is run by machines — see especially the giant computer, EPICAC — and a technocratic elite, most especially, industrial jobs are done by automated machines. Discussed in Clockwork Worlds in the essays by T. Hoffman and L. Broer (q.v. under Literary Criticism).[1] See for a relatively early work expressing fear of what would be realized in the use of robots and robotics later in the 20th century and into the 21st, expressed by Kurt Vonnegut, who would go on to become a major US author, and one who suggested "the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts," with artists warning of impending dangers.[2]

See Chapter 32 for image of the superimposition of the electronic (and primitively cybernetic?) on the human, specifically the protagonist, Paul Proteus, on trial, hooked up to a very large lie-detection device: "There, beside and above Doctor Paul Proteus, sat the judge — the Sky Manager [from a propaganda playlet], Paul thought. The accused [...] resembled less a man than an old-fashioned switchboard, with wires running from temperature-, pressure-, and moisture-sensitive instruments at his writs, armpits, chest, temples and palms. These, in turn, ran to a gray cabinet under the witness stand, where their findings were interpreted and relayed to a dial a yard in diameter over Paul's head" (pp. 293-94). The lie-detector works, so there is here also a hint of subtle penetration of Paul's brain or psyche.


Discussed in "The Player Piano and Musico-Cybernetic Science Fiction between the 1950s and the 1980s: Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick," which see.

Discussed in terms of posthumanism and in dialog with works by J. G. Ballard in Erica Moore's dissertation "Practising the Posthumanities: Evolutionary Animals, Machines and the Posthuman in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut."

Significantly not mentioned explicitly, nor is the title nor "Vonnegut" listed in the Index; but you have in chapter 23, "Computers and Art" in O. B. Hardison's Disappearing Through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century an observation that parallels a key point in the trial scene in Player Piano: "A definition of what it is to be human is thus an unexpected but provocative by-product of computer art: 'To err is human.' What distinguishes man from machine is the tendency to make mistakes" (Hardison, p. 217).

Increasingly relevant again as made clear in another work that doesn't mention it, Buchanan and Imbrie's The New Fire: War, Peace, and Democracy in the Age of AI. See also Bernard Gendron's Technology and the Human Condition.

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From Heather Hick's Note 3, pp. 210-11, in Chapter 1, "'No Good to Anybody'" in her study, The Culture of Soft Work: Labor, Gender, and Race in Postmodern American Narrative.

Howard P. Segal provides the most comprehensive exploration of Player Piano’s relation to both the dystopian and utopian traditions in “[Kurt] Vonnegut’s Player Piano: An Ambiguous Technological Dystopia,” No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ed. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1983), 162–181. Briefer assessments of Vonnegut’s relation to these movements, with particular emphasis on his debt to Orwell, Zamyatin, and Huxley, also appear in Leonard Mustazza, “The Machine Within: Mechanization, Human Discontent, and the Genre of Vonnegut’s Player Piano,” Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature 25 (1989): 99–113;[3] [and] David Y. Hughes, “The Ghost in the Machine: The Theme of Player Piano,” America as Utopia, ed. Kenneth M. Roemer (New York: Burt Franklin, 1981), 108–114;[4] [...]. Hughes offers the most thorough catalog of Player Piano’s allusions to Norbert Wiener’s work on cybernetics (n. 4, 113). Schatt and Segal along with [...] Thomas P. Hoffman (“The Theme of Mechanization in Player Piano,” Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF, ed. Richard D. Erlich and Thomas B. Dunn [Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983], 125–135), [also] decode Vonnegut’s allusions to Greek mythology. [...]

For real-world background, see Michael Lind's updating of James Burnham's Managerial Revolution in his 2020 book The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.

See The Expanse as fiction and television for more recent handling of automation and labor, in a further-future solar system with too many humans for available jobs.

Cf. and contrast the (mild) dystopian satire of parallel educational issues in the U.K., The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033.


RDE, initial; finishing, 18Jan22, 26Feb22, 6Jun22, 2Ap23, 13Jun23, 18Ap24