Player Piano

I just read Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut‘s first novel. His trademark style is only visible if you squint and hold the book sideways, but it is still a splendid book and worth a read.

There’s a problem with it though, and it’s a problem I see everywhere. It’s not really a criticism of the book or of the author, but of a commonly held idea trodden into the carpet of the society in which it was written.

The story is set in a dystopian America in which tasks originally intended to improve quality of life have become automated. That is, machines take care of almost all manufacturing and service tasks. The only positions occupied by human beings are those in higher-echelon engineering and management, positions reserved for cherry-picked citizens of a certain IQ (and even these function beneath the tactical leadership of a supercomputer called EPIAC). The employed and unemployed seldom socialise. The unemployed majority either join the army or live invisible and aimless lives in an urban reservation called Homestead.

In some ways, the book should have pride of place in the Escapological library. It’s protagonist, Doctor Paul Proteus, wants to escape his tedious career among the managerial caste and bring about something of a proletarian revolution. Great! His solution, though, is to destroy the machine society and to return to a state of employment for everyone. And here lies my problem with it.

It is based upon the idea that to be unemployed is the ultimate disgrace.

It is based upon the romance that primitive graft is the only place to find dignity.

Well, it isn’t. If society were fully automated and human application were no longer required, we would find dignity in the new challenges: finding a way to support a society without mass employment, and ultimately finding something to succeed the consumer society. Given that unemployment in the Western world is increasing (due to automation or other factors) I think it is time we started thinking about it.

Some questions:

Why can’t we be allowed to do nothing? Why is it not decent to be idle?

Do we have the imagination to do something other than prop up a consumer economy? Can we, as a society, say “Good riddance” to grunt work – just as we saw an end to prepubescent chimneysweeps – and get on with something worthwhile, or at the very least, accept our bounteous inheritance as idlers?


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

5 Responses to “Player Piano”

  1. adam says:

    It’s a really interesting idea. I remember when I was in the sixth form, back in the mid 80s, having a talk from somebody who I think worked in IT consultancy about Alvin Toffler’s ‘Futureshock’, and he saw the future like a positive Vonnegut might have done (if you can imagine such a thing) – there would be all of this automation and a great deal more speed and lots of bulk processing and people would be free too… but he never really got beyond that. I don’t think we’ve ever really got beyond that – the culture change that would be needed to identify people as productively using leisure time – as arts and crafts people, as volunteers, as readers and self-improvers – instead of as spongers.. I can’t see where that change in attitude would come from when there is such a strong top-heavy pressure to resist it.

    There is a really strong theme in American literature of the dignity of labour, and it’s worth remembering how much closer in time Player Piano is to Dos Pasos and Sinclair (and Tressel over here) than it is to us today.

    Have you read Ira Levin’s ‘This Perfect Day’? I’d recommend it – not just the same as this but a different kind of utopian/dystopian sci-fi about how we might productively spend our time from somebody who doesn’t get the credit he deserves for producing zeitgeist defining fiction over the years (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Boys From Brazil…)

  2. It’s a fantasy that comes up a lot: that we will one day be able to let the robots take care of everything while we relax in our loungers. I think it may even have been the original trope that lead to the Player Piano-style pessimism. Not sure which came first. But, yes, I do worry about the economic necessity for us all to go to work in jobs that could easily be mechanized. It is as though the signifier has become more important than the signified. Getting the job done (manufacturing shoes, selling shoes) should be the important thing, but that has been eclipsed by the fact that we now need money to live. Automate that process as well, I say: set up a Citizen’s Income system. Then we can choose how much work we need to do in order to maintain a sense of dignity of personal worth. Some of us will be able to get over that, but the option to till the fields will be there for those who want it.

    I HAVE read “This perfect Day” and I enjoyed it greatly. Always confused as to why it isn’t more famous. I mean, it’s written by Mr. Stepford Wives, and is really rather good. I did indeed think of the book when reading Player Piano. My mum was nice enough to collect the book for me from a local library, and it resulted in quite the adventure. Although it was visible on the catalogue and should have been on the shelves, it had actually been moved to an underground stack. So my mum got to see the secret underside of our local library! (I’ve not read “Future Shock” though. Have added it to the list).

    Gosh, the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Lovely book, isn’t it? Though I read the massive unabridged version. Dude needed that editor if you ask me.

  3. […] Vladimir Nabokov 17. Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut (you can read a really well put review of this here) 18. Die 13 1/2 Leben Kapitän Blaubär by Walter Moers (audio) 19. A Game of Thrones by George […]

  4. Alex says:

    In Player Piano, EVERYONE is employed– the one’s who aren’t PhDs are required to either join the Army or the Reeks and Wrecks. So what I took from the book is a shift from meaningless work to meaningful work.

  5. I suppose so. But cannon fodder and rag-and-bone really are the lowest positions of the low, eh? They’re not real jobs, just pointless occupations for these human golems. And they live basically in poverty, contemptuous of the doctors on the other side of the river. Not much of a life.

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