Player Piano (novel)

Player Piano

First edition, hardcover
Author Kurt Vonnegut
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction
Publisher Charles Scribner's Sons
Publication date
August 1952
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 296
OCLC 1376700
LC Class PS3572.O5

Player Piano is the first novel of American writer Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1952. It depicts a dystopia of automation, describing the worsening it can cause to quality of life.[1] The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. This widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class—the engineers and managers who keep society running—and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines. The book uses irony and sentimentality, which were to become hallmarks developed further in Vonnegut's later works.[1]


Player Piano is set in the near future after a third world war. While most Americans were fighting overseas, the nation's managers and engineers faced a depleted work force and responded by developing ingenious automated systems that allowed the factories to operate with only a few workers. The novel begins ten years after the war, when most factory workers have been replaced by machines. The bifurcation of the population is represented by the division of Ilium into "The Homestead", where every person who is neither a manager nor an engineer lives, and the other side of the river, where all the engineers and managers live.

Player Piano develops two parallel plot lines that converge only briefly, and insubstantially so, at the beginning and the end of the novel. The more prominent plot line follows the protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus (referred to as Paul), an intelligent, thirty-five-year-old factory manager of Ilium Works. The ancillary plot line follows the American tour of the Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of six million residents in a distant, underdeveloped nation. The purpose of the two plot lines is to give two perspectives of the system: one from an insider who is emblematic of the system, and one from an outsider looking in. Paul, for all intents and purposes, is the living embodiment of what a man within the system should strive to be, while the Shah is a visitor from a very different culture, and therefore applies a very different context to happenings he sees on his tour.

The main plot line follows Paul's development from an uncritical cog in the system to one of its outspoken critics. Paul's father was the first "National, Industrial, Commercial Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director." Dr. George Proteus had almost complete control over the nation’s economy and was more powerful than the President of the United States. Paul has inherited his father's reputation and social status, yet harbors a vague dissatisfaction with the industrial system and his contribution to society. His struggle with this unnameable distress is heightened when Ed Finnerty, an old friend whom Paul has always held in high regard, informs him he has quit his important engineering job in Washington D.C. Paul and Finnerty visit a bar in the "Homestead" section of town, where workers who have been displaced by machines live out their meaningless lives in mass-produced houses. There, they meet an Episcopal minister named Lasher, with an M.A. in anthropology, who puts into words the unfairness of the system that the two engineers have only vaguely sensed. They soon learn that Lasher is the leader of a rebel group known as the "Ghost Shirt Society," and Finnerty instantly takes up with him. Paul is not bold enough to make a clean break, as Finnerty has done, until his superiors ask him to betray Finnerty and Lasher. However, Paul secretly purchased a run down, under the table farm, managed by an elderly heir of the prior owners. Paul's intention was to start a new life by living off the land with his wife, Anita, but Anita was highly disgusted by Paul's wishes to radically change their life styles. Paul and Anita's relationship is one of emotional distance and personal disagreements. She and Paul had married quickly when it seemed she was pregnant, though it turned out that Anita was barren and it was just a hysterical pregnancy.[2] "Of all the people on the north side of the river, Anita was the only one whose contempt for those in Homestead was laced with active hatred... If Paul were ever moved to be extremely cruel to her, the cruelest thing he could do... would be to point out to her why she hated [Homesteaders] as she did: if he hadn't married her, this was where she'd be, what she'd be."[3] She temporarily convinced Paul to stay in his position, and to continue to compete with two other engineers, Dr. Shepherd and Dr. Garth, for a more prominent position in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

After rumors begin circulating of Paul's disloyalty to the system and suspicious activity during the hosting of "the Meadows" (an annual competition for high class engineers), Paul determines that, with or without Anita, it was necessary to join his friend Finnerty, among others, to stop the socio-economic "system" of having machines replace humans. He quits his job and is captured by the "Ghost Shirt Society," where he is made the public figurehead of the organization, although this position is merely nominal. Through his father's success, Paul's name is famous among the citizens, so the organization intends to use his name to their advantage by making him the false 'leader' to gain publicity. Paul is arrested and put on public trial, but is freed as the Ghost Shirt Society and the general population begin to riot, destroying the automated factories. The mob, once unleashed, goes farther than the Ghost Shirt leaders had planned, destroying food production plants as well as the superfluous plants. Despite the brief and impressive success of the rebellion, the military quickly surrounds the town, and the citizenry, used to the comforts of the system, begin to rebuild the machines of their own volition. Paul, Finnerty, Lasher, and other members of the Ghost Shirt Society acknowledge that at least they had tried to stop the government's system, before surrendering themselves to the military.

Major themes

The automation of industry and the effect this has on society is predominant theme of Player Piano. It is "a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will."[4] More specifically, it delves into a theme Vonnegut returns to, "a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines. The problem is this: How to love people who have no use."[5] Unlike much dystopian fiction, Player Piano's society was created by indifference, both of the populace and the technology that replaced it. As such, it is the sense of purposelessness of those living in a capitalistic society that has outgrown a need for them which must be rectified.[6]

Mankind's blind faith in technology (and its usually disastrous effect on society) as well as the dehumanization of the poor or oppressed have since become common themes throughout Vonnegut's work.[7] Throughout his life, Vonnegut continued to believe the novel's themes were of relevance to society, writing for example in 1983 that the novel was becoming "more timely with each passing day".[8]


Player Piano is not indicative of the style Vonnegut developed and employed throughout much of his career. It is one of only three novels to be written exclusively in the third person and makes no use of meta-fiction or breaking of the fourth wall. His style of self-contained chapters "of no more than five hundred words, often as few as fifty," which would come to define his writing, had yet to be developed.[6]


Cover of Utopia 14, as the novel was titled for a 1954 release.


In a 1973 interview Vonnegut discussed his inspiration to write the book:[9]

I was working for General Electric at the time, right after World War II, and I saw a milling machine for cutting the rotors on jet engines, gas turbines. This was a very expensive thing for a machinist to do, to cut what is essentially one of those Brâncuși forms. So they had a computer-operated milling machine built to cut the blades, and I was fascinated by that. This was in 1949 and the guys who were working on it were foreseeing all sorts of machines being run by little boxes and punched cards. Player Piano was my response to the implications of having everything run by little boxes. The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn't a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.

In the same interview he acknowledges that he "cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin's We."[9]


A player piano is a modified piano that "plays itself". The piano keys move according to a pattern of holes punched in an unwinding scroll. Unlike a music synthesizer, the instrument actually produces the sound itself, with the keys moving up and down, driving hammers that strike the strings. Like its counterpart, a player piano can be played by hand as well. When a scroll is run through the ghost-operated instrument, the movement of its keys produce the illusion that an invisible performer is playing the instrument. Vonnegut uses the player piano as a metaphor to represent how even the most simple of activities, such as teaching oneself how to play the piano in one's spare time, has been replaced by machines instead of people. Early in the book, Paul Proteus's friend and future member of the Ghost Shirt Society, Ed Finnerty, is shown manually playing a player piano, suggesting the idea of humans reclaiming their animus from the machines.

Publication history

This satirical take on industrialization and the rhetoric of General Electric[10] and the big corporations, which discussed arguments very topical in the post-war United States, was instead advertised by the publisher with the more innocuous and marketable label of "science fiction", a genre that was booming in mass popular culture in the 1950s. Vonnegut was surprised by this reception, writing that "I learned from reviewers that I was a science-fiction author. I didn't know that." He was distressed because he felt that science fiction was shoved in a drawer which "many serious critics regularly mistake ...for a urinal" because "[t]he feeling persists that no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works."[4]

Player Piano was later released in paperback by Bantam Books in 1954 under the title Utopia 14[1] in an effort to drive sales with readers of science fiction. Paul Proteus' trial was dramatized in the 1972 TV movie Between Time and Timbuktu, which presented elements from various works by Vonnegut.[11]

In 2009, produced an audio version of Player Piano, narrated by Christian Rummel, as part of its Modern Vanguard line of audiobooks.


Reviewing the novel for a genre science fiction audience, Groff Conklin declared it "a biting, vividly alive and very effectively understated anti-Utopia."[12] Boucher and McComas named it to their "year's best" list, describing it as "Human, satirical, and exciting; . . . by far the most successful of the recent attempts to graft science fiction onto the serious 'straight' novel."[13] They praised Vonnegut for "blending skilfully a psychological study of the persistent human problems in a mechanistically 'ideal' society, a vigorous melodramatic story-line, and a sharp Voltairean satire.[14]

Player Piano was nominated for the International Fantasy Award in 1953.[15]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Stableford, Brian (1993). "Vonnegut, Kurt Jr.". In John Clute & Peter Nicholls (eds.). The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction (2nd ed.). Orbit, London. p. 1289. ISBN 1-85723-124-4.
  2. Chapter I, p.2
  3. Chapter XVIII, pp.150-1
  4. 1 2 Vonnegut, Kurt (1974). Wampeters, Foma & Granfaloons. The Dial Press. p. 1.
  5. Vonnegut, Kurt (1965). God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Dell. p. 183.
  6. 1 2 Grossman, Edward (July 1974). "Vonnegut & His Audience". Commentary.
  7. Westbrook, Perry D. "Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: Overview." Contemporary Novelists. Susan Windisch Brown. 6th ed. New York: St. James Press, 1996.
  8. Ford, Martin (2015). The Rise of the Robots. One World. p. 32. ISBN 9781780747491.
  9. 1 2 "Kurt Vonnegut Interview". Playboy. July 1973. Archived from the original on February 10, 2009. Retrieved September 26, 2015.
  10. Interview from Bagombo Snuff Box , quote: "It is a lampoon on GE. I bit the hand that used to feed me."
  11. Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. (1972). Between Time and Timbuktu or Prometheus-5. Script by David O'Dell. Delta Books.
  12. "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1953, p.96
  13. "Recommended Reading," F&SF, March 1953, p.93
  14. "Recommended Reading," F&SF, April 1953, p.98
  15. Locus Index to SF Awards

Further reading

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