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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.
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.
Vonnegut’s cautionary tale, filled with the dark comedy of a wise, plain-speaking jester from Indianapolis, was perfect for a postwar American audience moving inexorably toward an automated society. But reading it again now, I see a new relevance. We are in the midst of another transformation led by the Internet of Things and pricey wearables. And if you can believe the predictions of Ray Kurzweil, soon we will become the machines—a perfect blending of flesh and titanium.
PLAYER PIANO is brilliant and still relevant. If you haven’t read this book, I encourage you to give it a try. Sure, you’ll laugh, but watch out. The next time you are chatting up Siri, you’ll shudder. Long live the Ghost Shirt Society!
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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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...Read more