Book Review: “Player Piano” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1952)

[Classic Read 2012-02]

“Those who live by electronics, die by electronics. Sic semper tyrannis.”
Player Piano by Vonnegut, Kindle, p. 74.

One of the most creative novels I have ever read was Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut, a story ostensibly written on scraps of numbered paper by an assassin hunkered down in a bell tower. That book left a mark on my imagination, as have all the Vonnegut books I have read, which is why I selected his first novel, Player Piano, as one of the twelve classics gifted to my brother for 2012. Vonnegut’s literary genius and social outlook are unparalleled by authors today, for he wrote during an age when literature mattered to the masses, an age just prior to the technological upswing we all know today. It is this upswing, in fact, which Vonnegut prophetically attacks in Player Piano, first published in 1952.

Vonnegut’s protagonist, Paul, is a plant-manager in a future America where sophisticated machines have stolen all the good, human jobs. A rift has torn between the highly-qualified engineers like Paul who run the machines and the average man, a rift that only the average man cares to acknowledge. But as the story progresses, the readers come to see that Paul has begun to notice the rift as well. Paul and some of the lower people begin to see him as a potential messiah of sorts, a man of power who could ignite a revolution against the machines (144). “In the past, in a situation like this, if Messiahs ever showed up with credible, dramatic messagse of hope, they often set off powerful physical and spiritual revolutions in the face of terriffic odds. If a Messiah shows up now with a good, solid, startling message, and if he keeps out of the hands of the police, he can set off a revolution — maybe one big enough to take the world away from the machines…and give it back to the people” (339).

Vonnegut’s idea of a future run by machines, though somewhat misguided, reveals to the conscientious today a surprising reality: progress is not entirely wonderful. While Vonnegut’s future depicts technology creating such excessive free-time that its people are killed off by boredom, reality has proven that technological progress has actually eliminated free time, and advanced societies like ours have lost all sense of emotional, spiritual, and social elbow-room, what Christian futurist, Richard Swenson, calls “margin.” Swenson argues in his book, Margin, that if an American were to visit a third-world country lacking the modern technology which has saturated the U.S., he would suddenly experience such palpable amounts of time to think, breathe, socialize, and live, that he would be hard-pressed to return home (though his desire for other modern conveniences, like proper plumbing, would certainly get him there).

Whether Vonnegut’s vision exactly depicted future realities or not, his call for the retainment of human dignity in the face of progress is one which everyone must hear. Progress is killing human dignity as we speak, yet very few people are noticing. I hate to consider what shallow world my children will experience as adults, a world where environmental pollutants are outlawed and spiritual pollutants are protected, for example. I will not get political, but if you have not noticed the dumbing-down of American morality and dignity in the past ten years, then I gently suggest that you need to wake up.

I could write plenty more about Player Piano and Vonnegut’s exquisite writing (exquisite, save for the occasional blasphemy; reader beware), writing which certainly forshadows his long and industrious career, but I will leave that for the reader to discover on his own. Amongst the many gems throughout the book, however, that could sum up the story and theme of Player Piano, perhaps none are more direct than this: “A step backward after a wrong turn is a step in the right direction” (364). Whether this is a call for the cessation of technological progress or for the return to human dignity, no one can say for sure. In my opinion, however, I think Vonnegut wanted a little bit of both when he wrote this in the early ’50s. One can only imagine what he would think of the world now.


Swenson, Richard A. Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives / Richard A. Swenson. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2004.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Player Piano. 1952 (Kindle).

©2012 E.T.

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