Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review of Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Player Piano rounds out a pair of reviews of books (along with The Space Merchants) that plot out American dystopias from the viewpoint of 1952. They are critiques of the American capitalist myth from square in its heyday, using the time-honored role of science fiction to pick apart the flaws of the present day. In Vonnegut's near future, automation has removed the need for human labor in manufacturing, leaving people at large with nothing much to do, nothing much to be proud of. Vonnegut has claimed that he got the idea from watching, on his return from the war, an automated milling machine at work and extrapolating some logical conclusions. The operator's added value had vanished, he realized, leaving only the management and design as the only useful human elements in the production chain. In a plot outline he says he cribbed from Brave New World, Vonnegut pulls the reader from the upper-eschelon management class to the world of the moron and the savage, where a revolution may be brewing. It's a fun ride, not short on the biting truths and heartbreaking wit you expect from Vonnegut.

And arguably, this is how manufacturing went down in the half century that followed Player Piano. The American shift from an industrial economy rides on the fact that the manufacturing staff could be automated out of existence, leaving behind underemployed engineers and a management in love with its own culture. A competitive skill set that developed overseas also rocked the boat, but the development of better tools has, by and large, obviated the need for bodies for rote machine tasks, and devalued the skilled hands that used to command better pay and more prestige. Vonnegut imagined lengthy and pointless higher education to absorb the non-demand for workers, and a segregated society of haves and have-nots based on incompletely-measured intellectual ability, or on nepotism that's pretending to be merit. Competing with slaves, a character proclaims, makes workers slaves too. He meant machines, and perhaps that's half right.

A lot of the black humor comes out at the expense of managers and engineers. (As an engineer, I'll greedily accept half of this bias, and cautiously consider the other half.) The most amusing part of the story takes the protagonist, one Paul Proteus, upstate to a management retreat, where he's stuffed with corporate platitudes, as vacuous 50 years ago as today, at a summercamp full of grown men, complete with sports, singalongs, and fake Indian legends. (And yeah, that's "grown men." Vonnegut picks up on his country's culture of managerial sexism, which in America may have actually moved past the 1950s vision, but the satire of the unruly boys club is still uncomfortably resonant. Even if they took down the sign, there's still the same treehouse.) Even with all the high-status knowledge workers, the economy still runs itself, and even the gifted just move along with it.

It's not a polemic against progress, more a statement about the inevitability of it. The faux naturalasm of the managers' retreat is perhaps telling, and Vonnegut similarly flirts with a throwback lifestyle--Proteus is charmed with the idea of farm life, of working with his hands--and rejects it. It's not lost on the reader that "we might need the bakery," and the flush toilets (and the medicine, education, wine, public order, roads, and the fresh water system). The Indian theme gets pulled out at the end again, as the revolting holdouts against automation at last get the stage. The rebellion is as doomed, unavoidable, and as pointlessly noble as anything the Native Americans did to turn the tide against the Europeans, and history, it keeps rolling. The knowledge economy is on the brink of the cliff too. So it goes.

Vonnegut's automation is of a quaint, clockwork kind, driven by tape reels and punch cards and vacuum tubes, displayed by blinking lights, a real old-fashioned future, but it's wrong to over-emphasize technical accuracy in a novel like this. The big picture is really the point, and anyway, the details are kind of charming. Unseen data handling is used to predict citizen preference, and to plot a life of moderately satisfying consumption, even as the rage of the unfulfilled boils just under the surface. I wondered about all of this dissatisfaction, and I think it's a spot where Vonnegut fell short in a more substantive way. The proles seemed to be kept in line by some sort of institutional depression, with minor make-work duties, and some dreary social functions (endless parades, sports) as moribund in their way as a summer camp for grownups. I think there needed to be a better mechanism to make them feel indebted to the system, or maybe the psychology needed to be less subtle. With that many people unhappy and, more importantly, bored, the shit would surely have hit the fan years before. There's no equivalent service economy to take a passionate hold, and the street economy is unenthused.

[I spent a few real-life years in "Ilium," NY (and many more years in places like it), during its decidedly post-industrial period. If Vonnegut failed to represent the decay of the non-University sectors, maybe I'm a little more sensitive to it than normal. His city is fictional, and the geography of the region isn't quite right either, but I had a good time mapping real Troy onto pretend Ilium just the same. It helps that I never had a good map in the first place (no car for most of the time), and it amused me to put his landmarks in the circle around the university, ranging from the bar districts near the bridge, to some of the outer residences up on the hill. Good times.]

Reading Kurt Vonnegut is a different experience from remembering him. I always take home the pith, the non-sequiturs, the bitter observations, the concision. Opening a new one, I am surprised to catch him transparently writing, going through the usual efforts of developing character and plot just like any other author, with mere competence. Player Piano is his first full novel, but I think I just tend to forget his humanism is developed by conventional means too. I don't even think this novel was the best social critique of its day, but the tough fatalism and the piercing, honest wit are what make Vonnegut noteworthy, what gives his novels a timelessness that transcends classification.


Artemesia said...

'Player Piano,' by Kurt Vonnegut may use the old computer punch cards, but as you indicate,Vonnegut’s vision in 1952 has only gotten deeper and truer with each subsequent decade. And the black humor of the American Corporate elite using the American Indian mythos as the way into their inner boy scout.. is only too true.

A reaction to the Woman’s Movement in the last few decades has seen the birth and search for ‘the inner child’ for men, to reduce stress and hunt for personal authenticity by latching on to ye old Iroquois sweat lodge and campfires. And spend weekends bonding by Hiawathan streams ..

While now, the Right Wing/Corporate Elite would like to dismember our National Parks by opening up this sacred trust of America, for oil drilling, timber harvesting and plundering for any ores or resources that may be there for Corporate initiative. Just what would Chief Black Elk think of that? ..We live in a time of the Disney World imagination fueled by use ‘em, use it..So what if we lose it; we want our money and American oil any way we can get it. National Park Trusts be damned. First they grabbed the Indian lands, now they want whatever else may be pristine.

I don’t think anyone has presented a real tally of all the jobs that have been made obsolete by our age of the computer program, robotics and new communications. And, real substantive education in the subjects that will keep the gears of our society turning, is financially and preparitorially out of reach for millions of High School drop outs and graduates alike. That leaves us an increasingly privileged class of University graduates who will bring their networking into the shrinking marketplace.

We have now entered the market of importing brains which is much cheaper than spending our own government’s money on education for Americans. Thus, the encroaching educated elite keeps growing and new unemployment from the bottom will keep rising…But as consumers will always be necessary, I await what imaginative solution will be proffered for corporate profits in the future.

Your review will have me reading Vonnegut’s 'Player Piano,' that appears to prophecy beyond the Indian Territory in Brave New World.

Keifus said...

I always had those drum circle thingies as silly and harmless, but I think Vonnegut really nailed the interpretation. Do read the book, two of your paragraphs here could have been synopses, although the novel itself is short enough. The Indian theme is mostly metaphorical.

It's almost amazing how much of that postwar productivity managed to get distributed among the people producing it. I don't get that was the case, say, before the depression, and I often forget that many of these developments were hard-won. And you're right: there's more educated people than ever, with fewer jobs to do. And the requisite college degree gets a body in the debt trap nice and early.

As for what economy may be next, I hope it's a renewable energy economy, by necessity. Suburban reclamation? I mean, the alternative's probably a spiffy new war, which is what we usually do.

I have been despairing of the official bullshit lately, from both the left and the right. A lot of official policy is nearly inexplicable as anything other than enriching the people making it.