Thursday, August 5, 2010

Player Piano

Kurt Vonnegut's first novel is sort of an interesting case. It's his wordiest work that I've read, and in some ways it's unique because it doesn't seem like only he could have written it. His style is visible but not fully formed yet, and it's like he wasn't sure who he was yet. A lot of his trademarks are there, like interesting applications of then-cutting edge but now old fashioned technology, a dystopian view of mankind's overall mentality, and some black humor. But it's just missing that economy of language and particular wry wit that would make it distinctly his. It was a pretty good book, but not one of his greats.

It's interesting trying to figure out when the book is supposed to take place, too. It was published in 1952, and is clearly set in a future where machines have too much control of society, but it's hard to say how far in the future. It takes place a generation or so after "the war", the United States' supposed final military conflict before they set up their new, more efficient society. But while it might have been World War II (albeit an alternate version of it), it seemed more like another one after it. The prominent use of now-dated technology like tape recorders to control various automated functions makes it unclear how far forward he intended it to take place, although I would guess sometime before now. It makes for an original setting that probably won't be replicated, and a curious backdrop for the story.

It's about Paul Proteus, an engineer and son of a legend of a man who was one of the most powerful in the country before he died. The world is placed before him in his career, but he grows increasingly displeased with the system and his life, while one of his old friends becomes involved with an organization that wishes to overthrow the machines' power in the society. It ended up taking on a more traditional story structure than I really expected, and some of its ideas seem kind of quaint now, but it had a surprising amount of things to say that would be relevant now. His ideas have always been a bit too nuts to take their warnings too seriously, but Kurt Vonnegut could probably make a compelling argument about anything he wanted. It was a bit preachy in places, but it was overall a pretty good first work by one of my favorite writers.

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