Although released in 1952, Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian Player Piano can serve as a satire of modern America. That may not be readily apparent to those who focus only on its theme of technology obsoleting workers. Seemingly influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and foreshadowing The Twilight Zone’s “The Brian Center at Whipple’s,” Player Piano paints a future America where a technocratic oligarchy has established a corporate command economy and cradle-to-grave socialism. The leaders think they’ve created a utopia but the proles disagree.
One big problem is that advancing technology makes more people useless every day. Retraining is no answer; even engineers are being replaced by computers. Society has become a player piano, creating flawless music without aid of human hands. However, this Darwinism is not untempered. The useless do not go homeless and hungry. On the contrary, everyone’s basic needs are met: pre-fabricated homes, washers, TV, even national health care. And twelve years of free education, which is pretty pointless, as most people graduate to idleness.
Well, not quite idleness. Those with top test scores enjoy free college, then join the ever-diminishing ranks of engineers and managers. The less-brainy majority must choose between the Army or the Reconstruction & Reclamation Corps (aka, the Reeks & Wrecks), and begin a life of menial make-work rather than real jobs. Yes, that includes the Army. Wars are primarily fought with machines, so millions of soldiers remain idle in the US, training with wooden guns. Only those stationed safely abroad are trusted with real guns.
The less-gifted wealthy can go to private college, though I’m not sure what they’d become in this meritocratic society. Perhaps politicians. Player Piano‘s America enjoys complete separation of politics and power. Elections are free, but elected officials are impotent PR shills. The President is a goofy dunderhead whose main job is telling everyone how great things are, while publicly “ooooing” and “aaaahing” over the engineers’ latest computer.
Despite their safety net, men feel useless and miserable because they’re paid for make-work. Women feel useless because of all those kitchen appliances, and miserable because they’re married to losers. (Yeah I know, but it’s a 1950s book.) With few exceptions (entertainer, athlete, politician), it’s mostly engineers and managers who enjoy meaningful work and its concomitant prestige. They also make more money, but that’s not the main gripe of the useless majority. Player Piano has an anti-materialist theme. Despite calling himself a socialist, Vonnegut has written a novel in which national health care doesn’t bring happiness.
So how does Player Piano parallel modern America? There is the loss of good jobs; in the book through technology, in modern America through outsourcing. Both Americas relegate ever more people to menial, government-subsidized work (Wal-Mart reputedly advises employees how to obtain food stamps to supplement their paychecks). Both Americas employ rising police surveillance to fight terrorism, and feel rising suspicion toward dissenters. In Player Piano, terrorists are also called “saboteurs,” the ugliest of obscenities. Alleged saboteurs cannot appeal to a judge. Judges have been replaced by computers that analyze precedents and spit out verdicts.
Most importantly, in Player Piano the centralization of corporate/government power over the economy and security forces is a legacy of the last war, which was largely responsible for putting engineers and managers in charge of a command economy. It was a big war, fought overseas with drones and nukes and Gamma rays. A real turkey shoot, except for the soldiers attending the high-tech weapons during a return fire.
Vonnegut’s book was doubtless inspired by America’s command economy during World War Two, but libertarians have long noted that “War is the health of the state.” Some conservatives may not like to hear it, but even “good wars” invariably expand government and diminish liberties. Just ask Louis XVI what the American Revolution did for his treasury. Thus, true conservatives, like all true patriots, are always sceptical of war, and suspicious of those who say we must not question or doubt our elected leaders in times of war.
Player Piano‘s neocons imagine that they’ve ended history. The last war is referred to as the Last War. America’s high-tech weapons and economy dominate the globe. Yet freedom does not abound, not even in the US. “Anti-machine” books are banned for encouraging terrorism, the authors risking jail. Indeed, a visiting autocrat, hosted by the State Department, mistakes average Americans for slaves.
Vonnegut regards himself as a man of the left, but I’ve met many libertarians, conservatives, and objectivists who admire Vonnegut’s work. Libertarians admire him because he’s antiwar and distrusts government. Objectivists mostly enjoy his atheism and Bokononist satire of religion. And conservatives discern a patriotic nostalgia for small town America in some of his work. While I think that’s especially true of his short stories, I’ve met one conservative who was taken with Vonnegut’s midwestern family history in Palm Sunday. Ralph Nader has praised such “true conservatism,” distinguishing it from corporatism or empire building.
With a little updating, Player Piano would make for a fine film satire of modern America. Vonnegut’s never been adapted effectively, though he was reportedly pleased with Slaughterhouse-Five. The problem is that his greatest strength is not his plots or characters, but his unique authorial voice. Mother Night was adapted with unusual faithfulness to the plot, yet the film was dreary and grim, unlike the often hilarious book.
Player Piano shouldn’t have this problem. It was Vonnegut’s first novel, his voice still undeveloped and not yet evident, so the book’s merits are not based on something unfilmable.
Unfortunately, a critique is not a solution. I don’t know what can be done about the outsourcing of jobs. Socialism breeds poverty, corruption, nepotism, and ethnic clashes. Protectionism leads to trade wars, and then, say some, to shooting wars. What we have today — a sort of statist crony corporatism? — produces government favoritism and contracts for politically-connected insiders. But even an authentic free market would drain good jobs to the lowest foreign bidder. Good for foreign workers and consumers, bad for domestic workers.
Like many satirists, Vonnegut is better at identifying and ridiculing a problem than in offering a solution. Player Piano ends on a pessimistic note. That may be because some problems have no solution.