A Series of Accidents #1: Player Piano

This is a series about the works of Kurt Vonnegut. I’ll be reading through Vonnegut’s entire bibliography in chronological order and writing about it. Welcome!


In 1947, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. began the first and only corporate job of his life. He was hired by General Electric as a publicist at the behest of his brother Bernard, a scientist for GE and the family’s success story. Kurt moved to Schenectady, New York, a town-sized company campus.

It’s hard for us to imagine the kind of undiluted faith in technology that Americans – or at least the American media – had in the postwar period. And why wouldn’t they? Men and women had come home from a war waged at a scale never seen before or since, and found a plethora of wondrous appliances waiting for them. Refrigerators, dishwashers, televisions and more sprung up at a dizzying speed. It’s understandable that people might buy into corporate hype about the inevitable march of technological progress making the world better for everyone.

In the technophilic press, General Electric’s Schenectady was described as a massive wonder-workshop capable of altering nature itself. (Bernard was involved in research towards controlling the weather.) Some of these articles were written in co-ordination with Kurt Vonnegut, who helped a compliant press repurpose GE’s ambitions into news copy. Kurt was good at the job, having a strong knowledge of both science and journalistic writing, and initially quite enthusiastic about it. But over time, he came to hate his work and the corporate atmosphere that surrounded it. In 1950, he quit GE to become a writer.

Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, is full of this disgust at the corporation. The novel takes place in the future that General Electric envisioned, one in which technology has made everything automated and human labour has entirely vanished. The protagonist Paul Proteus, with one of those names that only appears in satiric science-fiction novels, is an engineer in Ilium, New York – a thinly-veiled version of Schenectady. He has one of the last jobs in America, but he too will soon be out of work.

Vonnegut describes the three orders of automation that have taken place in the novel’s universe: the first the elimination of physical work, the second of social work, and the third, just on the precipice, being the computers starting to think and innovate on their own. In this, Vonnegut was influenced by Norbert Weiner’s theory of cybernetics. Weiner believed that all human behaviour and experience was feedback to stimuli, and that it could therefore be modeled and simulated by a computer. Even the title image of the player piano, a mechanism that has no need of a human to operate it, seems to be drawn from a passage in Weiner.

This was precisely Vonnegut’s fear: that humanity was ultimately just a bundle of mechanisms that could be replicated by a glorified calculator. In a pivotal moment in the novel, the supercomputer EPICAC (a play on General Electric’s ENIAC) is asked what human beings are good for, and has no answers. As dystopias go, Player Piano is a dystopia of capitalism, a story of our society amusing itself to death. It’s more Huxley than Orwell, although it doesn’t feel that much like either.

The novel does follow a fairly typical plot for a dystopian narrative. The protagonist, beginning at the locus of power, gradually becomes disenchanted with the system and eventually joins a rebellion that fails before it can begin. The two elements of society are represented by contrasting characters, here Paul’s rebellious friend and his status-obsessed wife Anita (a fairly misogynist caricature, whose only positive trait is her skill in bed.) As in 1984 and Brave New World, the lower orders of society are fundamentally inert. The unemployed residents of Homestead and the put-upon Reeks and Wrecks may resent the machines, but it is only the engineers who are sufficiently intelligent to defeat it.

Paul ultimately joins a largely farcical rebellion, named the Ghost Shirt Society. This symbolism was likely drawn from Vonnegut’s unfinished anthropology degree, in which he studied nineteenth-century Native American society. The ghost shirt was a piece of clothing allegedly impervious to the white man’s bullets. In naming his antisocial society after this story, Vonnegut identifies them as motivated by a noble opposition to modernity and also foolhardy, sure to be shot through on their first attempt.

Literary dystopias frequently end with a failed rebellion, but Vonnegut goes further than most. It’s suggested that even if the Ghost Shirt Society was successful, the trend towards automation would ultimately continue. We see the rebels rebuilding the machines even during their would-be revolution, always moving towards the elimination of human labour. Thus, we see Vonnegut’s fatalist perspective appear for the first time: society is doomed to unhappiness, not because any particular government is inflicting it upon people, but because humans are fundamentally able to make themselves happy.

The novel would, of course, not make frustrated ex-engineer Vonnegut happy. Its first printing sold only a third of its copies, mostly to curious Schenectady workers. Vonnegut would later claim in interviews that GE executives read Player Piano unhappily, and that as a result they abolished one of their practices that was an object of particular scorn in the novel: a lengthy “team-building” retreat on an island that was essentially a giant adult gym class. Outside of those immediately depicted, the novel received positive but minor reviews, and vanished.

Player Piano would later be reprinted in a pulp paperback edition, retitled Utopia-14 and presented with a sensationalist cover. In this format, sold on spinner racks at drug stores and train stations, the novel sold many copies. But Vonnegut was unhappy with his work being presented as cheap pulp sci-fi. He had wanted to be a serious author, or at least a middlebrow one. Nevertheless, he would continue to write science-fictional works for the rest of his career – his next novel would have the pulpy title The Sirens of Titan. The question of where Vonnegut stood in relation to genre would remain a vexed one, and one which there are many contradictory Vonnegut quotes about.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve never wanted to work. This may sound like a trivial observation — after all, no one wants to work. But most people accept that they have to in order to survive, and I’ve always had trouble doing that. I never had a real summer job, went to grad school rather than enter the workforce, and even now am only semi-employed. (Which is why I have so much time to sit around writing articles about 70-year-old books for The Avocado.) No matter how much I try to put my nose to the grindstone, the vision of halcyon vacation days and long childhood summers, and the dream of that kind of carelessness never ending, taunt me.

Perhaps as a result, I’ve always been interested in the positive potential of automation. Rather than seeing car-making robots and cashier-replacing touch screens as job thiefs, I see them as building blocks towards a world where the toil that consumes our lives is, if not eliminated, at least greatly reduced. After all, if we fought for the eight-hour work day over a century ago, surely we could fight for less again. Of course, this transition would also require increased social services, whether in the form of universal goods or basic income (probably both.) So what probably started out as simple laziness has actually significantly shaped my political ideals.

Given this, you can probably guess that I’m not in agreement with Player Piano‘s vision of a workless future as dystopian. I don’t believe, as Vonnegut has suggested in interviews, that waged work is necessary to give people meaning and a sense of purpose. (It’s also a bit rich being told that from a man who quit a well-paying and not entirely menial corporate job to pursue his passions.) Rather than a society of aimless, sad-eyed proles who watch TV again, I imagine that an automated world would see an unprecedented flowering of art and community.

There are other elements that stop me from truly enjoying this novel. Vonnegut’s minimalist style, which so enchanted me when I first read Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, is still in development here. The prose in Player Piano is certainly not as turgid as in capital-L Literary novels from this period, but it also fails to spark much excitement. This is one of Vonnegut’s longest works, and the meandering plot and conventional narration are why.

Player Piano is also not a particularly progressive novel. As noted above, Anita is every bit the misogynist stereotype of the shrill, career-obsessed wife. (One wonders where Vonnegut thinks housewives derive their sense of purpose from.) There is also a subplot where the Shah of Bratpur, a ruler from a faraway country which possesses its own automated labour in the form of slaves, comes to visit and judge America. The Shah is a cartoonish image of the Orient, defined only by its opposition to Western society. Vonnegut’s sense of humour is always bitter and cynical, but in his better works he picks better targets.

If all Vonnegut’s writing was like Player Piano, I doubt I would have been moved to write a series on it. But even subpar Vonnegut is still Vonnegut, and even this first novel has its pleasures. Vonnegut’s laser-focused satire of corporate culture – for example, the unbearable chirpiness of team-building exercises – is one that just about any middle-class worker will find painfully familiar. Paul Proteus is a fairly well-developed protagonist, with both admirable traits and foibles, as demonstrated by his brief and foolhardy attempt to get back to the land. Society may have lost its heart, but Vonnegut is smart enough to realize that there’s no way back.

In the end, the workless society that Vonnegut envisioned is nowhere in sight. Instead, we find ourselves working more and more for less or less reward, so much so that some millennials look on the man-in-the-flannel suit culture decried by the likes of Vonnegut as a lost paradise. But evaluating science fiction by its predictive value is, I believe, a misunderstanding of the purpose of the genre. Dystopias that never come to past aren’t failures, but rather critical commentaries on a past era that reveal that period’s priorities – 1984, for instance, is obviously really a commentary on 1948.  If nothing else, Player Piano has value as a marker of midcentury cultural anxieties around technology and corporatism.

However,  in some ways Player Piano really was prophetic. In particular, its depiction of the Ghost Shirt Society would foreshadow the promise and contradiction of the 60s and 70s counterculture. Those activists would also channel righteous anger at the spiritual emptiness of capitalist culture and adapt the imagery of near-mythical Native American holiness despite largely being made up of a disenchanted professional class. Many of these real-life ghost shirts would end up discovering and embracing an author with a funny German name and a dark sense of humour, an ironic turn worthy of Vonnegut’s fiction.

I’m going to try to release these about once a month. Next month’s book is Vonnegut’s second novel, Sirens of Titan.