Thursday, May 30, 2019

Book 183: Player Piano

"He knew with all his heart that the human situation was a frightful botch, but it was such a logical, intelligently arrived-at botch that he couldn't see how history could have possibly led anywhere else."

Dates read: October 17-22, 2017

Rating: 5/10

I graduated from law school at the wrong time. 2010 was just a few years after the recession began, and it had completed changed the landscape of legal hiring from where it had been in 2007, when I started. Not only were the biglaw firm jobs (that I never coveted) getting slashed, the kind of government jobs I'd been hoping for (I wanted to be a prosecutor) were incredibly scarce, too. I'd hoped that once I passed the bar, I'd get somewhere in my job hunt, but I spent the next six months unemployed. I sent out hundreds of cover letters and resumes and got nothing more than a handful of form letters letting me know they'd keep my information on file. This was one of the worst experiences of my life. Being without a job was awful.

A lot of that explains why I stayed so long in the job I did eventually get, which was a terrible work experience, but that's neither here nor there. What is relevant is the very real sense of usefulness that one gets from meaningful work. This concept is the key idea behind Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano. In it, he hypothesizes a world in which America, during one of the world wars, focused on automation in order to win. And it didn't stop simply at military automation...instead, virtually every aspect of American life that could be mechanized, was. A generation later, there are two classes of people: the very smartest, who become engineers and managers, and everyone else, who have the choice to either enlist in the military (which is never sent into action anymore) or unskilled labor doing public works.

Our protagonist is Dr. Paul Proteus. The son of one of the architects of the system, he's in leadership at the facility where he works, but even with his top job and satisfying marriage, he feels like something is missing. When his friend Ed blows into town at the beginning of the story, announcing that he's quit his very similar job and reflecting on the plight of the ordinary people of the world, it kicks off a series of changes within Paul. He finds himself questioning the wisdom of the world that his father helped build and he's helping perpetuate. He finds himself longing to work outdoors, with his hands, in a way where his worth is measured in his ability to do the work that will feed him. This kind of thinking is considered dangerous radicalism.

He joins Ed and some other characters in a secret society dedicated to the overthrow of the machines, and ironically is ordered to infiltrate the same by his superiors as a mole shortly thereafter. He's propped up as the "head" of the organization to take advantage of his famous name as they prepare a rebellion against society as it currently exists. There's a parallel plot in which a foreign religious leader is being given a tour of the United States, meeting people and seeing how "advanced" the West has become...that this man sees the masses of the citizenry as and insists on referring to them (in his own language) as "slaves" is a point that is driven in over and over without the slightest modicum of subtlety.

And it's subtlety that's really missing here. This reminded me of some of Ayn Rand's works...not so much in terms of the ideas expressed, but in the way that the story is really kind of window dressing for the author's larger statement about the world. There's not really a lot of character development that goes on, and the plot is predictable. Vonnegut clearly wanted to draw attention to a trend he saw that was troubling to him and kind of propped up a story around that idea. Also, this was his first novel, and while some debuts bring us a writer already in command of their gifts...that's not the case here.

I actually found the novel more intriguing from the perspective of today...the results of the 2016 election and the way the opioid crisis seems to have hit the so-called Rust Belt especially hard demonstrates the real-world rage and despair that happen when people find themselves deprived of the chance to perform meaningful work. Even within my own lifetime, I've watched the way self check-out has replaced retail cashiers. I do exponentially more of my shopping on the internet than I do in stores. Automation is moving brutally forward, and it could be a much shorter time before most of life is mechanized than we think. So the book, even if it is more a statement than a story, does at least raise interesting questions. If you're a Vonnegut completist, there's merit to be found here, but for anyone else, it's very skippable.

Tell me, blog friends...has automation crept into your job?

One year ago, I was reading: The Sky Is Yours

Two years ago, I was reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Three years ago, I was reading: The Winged Histories

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