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on 15 May 2009
Kurt Vonnegut's first novel is set in a dystopian America of the future, where technology has made manual work obsolete. This society divides into the few technocrats and managers who devise and control the machines, and the masses. A semi-utopian ideal removes the need for work and provides the masses with all they physically need, but provides no hope - what service can they provide? For those outside the elite, their only work is the army or the "Reeks and Wrecks" (Reconstruction & Reclamation Corps), and even the army is not trusted with guns in an age where wars are fought by machines in foreign lands. Even the legal system has been automated, with machines that analyse data and precedent to pronounce judgement.

The book is centred on one character's struggle to find meaning within this society. Dr Paul Proteus is one of the elite, an engineer who manages one of the vast automated factories. But his state-controlled life provides material wealth and little satisfaction. The book follows his journey from elite to subversive in his search for meaning.

Written around the same time as 1984, the book offers a similar view of the future with total state control of society, work and media. While lighter in tone than 1984, the messages are strikingly similar and the outcome similar. This book ends pessimistically, challenging the goals of constant development but highlighting the needs that drive them.
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on 25 November 2003
Player Piano is in my opinion Kurt Vonnegut's finest novel and it beggars belief that it has been out of print for such a considerable length of time. I was lucky enough to find a second hand copy of it on Amazon and breezed through it in a couple of sittings; I hope you too can find a copy available.
Set in the aftermath of World War Three it depicts brilliantly a world in which men are becoming obsolete, replaced by the machines they themselves have built, hence the title. The story follows Dr Paul Proteus, one of the scientific elite, as he becomes increasingly disillusioned with his life in a society which robs men of their dignity and any pride previously enjoyed by work.
Despite enjoying the luxuries that come with being a member of the scientific elite, Proteus finds himself growing sympathetic towards the un-skilled and redundant masses that are forced into either military service or soul destroying works of reconstruction. This sympathy, along with the frustration he experiences as part of the corporate system which leads contradictorily to competition amongst its workers whilst attempting to foster a false co-operative spirit causes him to rebel against the system. Anyone who has been subjected to ‘team-building’ exercises in the work place will cringe at the horrors of ‘the Meadows’, a kind of corporate summer camp that Proteus has to endure, as well as many other episodes that remind one constantly of the situation many currently face in the workplace.
Written in 1952, I find this to be one of the most prophetic novels I have come across. Do whatever you have to do to get a hold of a copy of Player Piano.
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VINE VOICEon 24 May 2014
Back in the 1960s we thought that machines would do everything. We would now be living the life of luxury while robots do all the hard work. Player Piano was written even earlier than that and shows the approaching second transition from Labour to automation. That is when machines and algorithms take over from human thinking and not just from human action. The main protagonist is Dr Paul Proteus, the son of the man who had lead the first transition during the war by bringing automation and quality control to industrial production. Now Paul is finding that the role of humans in this automated world is getting less and less and so he feels the need to rebel.

It was a novel of its time and the methods of automation and computing have been replaced by silicon and not valves but the message is as important today as it was then. If we turn everything into an algorithm then we lose our humanity. Today the threat is from protocols, check lists and standard operating procedures. Once you have these machine like devices then you take away human thought. In theory this is there to improve quality control, but in reality when it becomes ossified like in the book then quality declines. So for anyone who wants to think about the future, this book should be on your reading list.
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on 17 April 2012
This is Kurt Vonnegut's first novel which was largely ignored when published in the early Fifties and remains out of print in the UK and hard to find. In it he explores the world that he sees on the horizon when most of the work is mechanised and the population is split between the highly paid technicians and the welfare supported masses who while away their lives with trivial pleasures. As always Vonnegut is prescient, warning of the follies of humankind, but this is a regular novel in terms of style, not exhibiting the trademark snappy prose and insightful asides of his later works. Thankfully his career was rescued from the doldrums in the Sixties and he went on to write some of the best modern American fiction. It's a very interesting book and a good read and fits right alongside such post-war classics as Brave New World and 1984.
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on 19 January 2016
Having read Slaughterhouse Five last year, I had big expectations for Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano,  but I should have paid attention to how many times I nodded off while trying to complete this novel. What I also should have done was consider the importance of this being a first novel – that Vonnegut hadn’t found his voice yet and was still merely crafting words on paper. Player Piano is no work of art, which I find disappointing from a dystopian novel. Credit where credit is due though, Vonnegut has a succinct view of the future which is eerily our present – a human race superseded by machines.

Player Piano follows the life of Paul Proteus, an engineer who – along with the rest of society – must find a way to live in a world where the master race has become extremely reliant on automation. The protagonist goes on a journey from an unthinking leader that keeps society ticking over, to an outspoken critic and sympathiser of the common people. Through his betrayal of the system, he symbolises a revolution. He becomes the public figurehead for the rebel group of redundant men, “Ghost Shirt Society”, a strategic move forced upon him as the organisation looks to strengthen their following. Not only is the author’s comparison between the rebel group and militant Native Americans of the 19th Century nothing short of crude, forcing Proteus to the front line via the hands of others emphasises the protagonist’s lack of backbone.

Essentially a predictable plot interspersed with a failing marriage, questions of morality and competition between multiple alpha males, I was really disappointed with Player Piano. Class division is my all time favourite trope in literature, so I really thought I’d buy into Vonnegut’s depiction of engineers and managers vs lower classes left without jobs. Despite lengthy descriptions of inequality, and even a story within the story to bolster the discussion, the mundane landscape of America engulfs any frustrations that Vonnegut tries to make present in his lower class characters.  While the suffering of the common men and their families isn’t palpable enough for my liking throughout the narrative, Vonnegut succeeds in making the callous distance between the two groups an excruciating experience for the reader.

Although I didn’t find much pleasure in Player Piano, I do have to admit it delivered a unique reading experience. By the time I finished the novel, I wish I could reread it, but from the perspective of Lasher, the leader of the Ghost Shirts. Tenacious, intuitive and if not forcefully impulsive, seeing society through his eyes certainly would have made for a far more interesting narrative:

I want to be sure you understand that men really do worry about what there is for their sons to live for; and some sons do hang themselves.
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on 5 December 2005
I searched for this book for years, ever since reading it in the 80s. Never got on well with other Vonnegut books but the story of this one showed quite clearly how our society could easily go - divided between technocrats and others, a process driven system taken to its logical but untenable conclusion . A good testament to the individualilty and irrepressability of the human race who do not really respond well to a 'logical' or over regulated system of living, even if it does mean that they are protected and provided for. It is no way to produce a perfect society. I always kept an eye out for it then wanted to write an essay about the development of cities which made me search for it harder. Found it on Amazon and although the cover design was a bit naff, the story inside just the same but a little bit closer. I never understood why so few people have read or heard of it. Long live irrepressible people and chaotic rules!
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on 26 November 2013
Fascinating and engrossing

I've only ever read short stories - years ago - by Kurt Vonnegut, and thought I'd start reading more of his work by beginning with his first novel. It seems so far ahead of its time and had me engrossed from start to finish. I will be reading more and wonder why it took me so long to explore his work.
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on 9 October 2011
Vonnegut's first novel introduces themes that appear in his later work. The book is short, fast-paced, very readable, but also unusual in style. There is irony and ennui from characters and a tremendous sense that, until a key juncture, the lead character is going through the motions.

It's easy to compare the book to 1984, or more appropriately Brave New World. In some senses Player Piano's world is more ominous than 1984's: it is not that a government cruelly oppresses its citizens, but that it genuinely believes it is doing the right thing - a notion that many are happy to go along with. The insincerity and blandness of the character's relationships are darkly comic as well as being all too easy to relate to.
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on 28 March 2016
He could have written this book today and the themes would have been just as profound. He has a great sense of humour and a message that is thought provoking but never preachy. This book is instantly in my top 5 of all time. Great title too!
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on 14 March 2015
A1 seller. Highly recommended
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