Hannah Scribbles

Book Review: Player Piano

In Career on June 26, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Why is “Slaughterhouse 5” so amazing? Because it’s about time travel? Yes, a novel concept (pun not intended), but I think that “Player Piano,” Vonnegut’s first novel, deserves more attention because it’s true… or, at least, is on its way to becoming true. I started reading “Player Piano” over Summer 2011 but found myself interrupted by college. A year later, I picked it up again the day after finals and finished the book within a week.

Set is set in a future where technology has automated production and industry in the name of progress and reduced citizens to mere consumers, “Player Piano” follows Dr. Paul Proteus, an engineer at Ilium Works on his path to self discovery. With a bit more humor, the novel also tracks Dr. Alyard, a diplomatic liaison attempting to “sell” the fruits of industry (civilization! progress!) to the Shah of Bratpuhr.

Proteus, who begins the novel as a career man on the fast track to a coveted promotion, begins to have reservations about the system. By all accounts, the systems leaves all citizens well fed and wanting for nothing, but Proteus, with the reader, begins to notice that the system does not allow them a basic human need: purpose.

It took me a week of contemplation before I realized why I loved this book so much: because it is about Enlightenment, human purpose and human nature. A running theme in the novel is Proteus’ desire to live free of machinery battling his desire for comfort, which (I think) follows Immanuel Kant’s theory of mental maturity and human nature. Kant says that humans are perpetually in conflict between a desire to be rational, independent beings and a base urge to find the easiest solution and pleasure. While Proteus eventually accomplishes his freedom by buying an antiquated farm, he is shocked by the effort that comes with the lifestyle he’d so long romanticized and gives it up as a passing hobby. Similarly, when we attempt to make choices without relying on the guidance of others, previously easy decisions become harder to make and we are faced with a temptation to return to our old patterns of behavior.

I think “Player Piano” addresses some of humanity’s big questions by drawing parallels between living independently and fighting fate. Here are some questions I pondered after this novel:

  • Can the mechanism of fate be overcome by men? Is there free will?
  • Is culture all-powerful in human life? Can men change society or are they just cogs in the machine?
  • What is the worth of humanity? What does it mean “to live”?

What do you think?

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