Friday, January 28, 2011

Reading group: Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Trevor suggested this 1952 novel, Vonnegut's first, which takes place in an America where, after another war, machines have taken over from not only labourers but non-manual workers too, and the only people in full and certain employment are a small elite of engineers, the designers of the machines. Most people live mod-con-aided but unfulfilled lives and work for the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps (the Reeks and Wrecks), devised to provide them with fake manual jobs, or join the Army where they train with wooden rifles, since it is machines now that win wars and indeed led to the recent victory. The novel's protagonist is Paul Proteus, son of the influential engineer, the late George Proteus, in whose footsteps he is following until he becomes involved with rebellious elements. The novel charts his deepening entanglement in the revolutionary movement and a final rebellion, but spends a good deal of space along the way describing the society that Vonnegut imagines.

Introducing the novel, Trevor spoke of the ways in which its predictions were accurate, chiefly the fact that technology has indeed taken over our lives while we have descended into mass unemployment. People immediately said however that, from a present-day perspective, the vision of the details of the predicted world seems naif, the so-called sophisticated machines being run by tape-recorders and valves, and the computers huge rather than tiny, filling whole underground caves. That's perhaps the danger with science fiction, they said, that it dates - especially, John pointed out, novels written in the realistic style of this one. He said, if you considered Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, written eleven years later and which we discussed previously, there was just no comparison: that book is surreal and so doesn't suffer from the same problem.

I said, but also Slaughterhouse 5  is so much better written. (In fact of course Slaughterhouse 5 is about the past rather than the future and breaks the bounds of the science-fiction genre.) Didn't anyone else find this novel utterly plodding? I asked. (I found the prose airlessly pedestrian, lacking the demotic energy of the voice of Slaughterhouse 5, and there was a lot of telling and explaining rather than showing, so the book lacked vividness for me. Here, for instance, is Paul reacting to his wife during a crucial, indeed relationship-changing episode: 'Paul had expected that reaction, and remained patient in the face of it' - note that formal 'remained'.) Hadn't anyone else found it a really tedious read? Jo and Ann immediately said yes they had, in fact neither of them had managed to finish it. All those long sections describing the machines and people's lives in such plodding detail...  And, I added, the awkward dialogue. Jenny said that she hadn't engaged much with the book at the start, but the further she'd read the more she'd liked it. She and Doug said they hadn't found it badly written: surely, they said, to agreement from Trevor, it was nicely satirical? I couldn't agree: I found the attempts at satire rather self-conscious and forced, even a bit amateur; I thought this was really obviously a first novel. Well, said Jenny and Doug, what about the phone conversations between Paul and his wife Anita that always ended in the same way, with Anita saying 'I love you,' and Paul replying, 'I love you':  Jenny and Doug had really enjoyed that - a pattern which Jenny pointed out was reversed once Anita started cheating on Paul. I must say I hadn't noticed this reversal, as I had found the repetition so overdone I had stopped paying attention to it by then. John said he hadn't found the novel as tedious as we three had, but even Trevor, the book's champion, said it certainly wasn't one of Vonnegut's best-written books. And he agreed with John that one thing the book had failed to envisage was the increasing status of women: its doctorate-qualified women work only as secretaries (and are being gradually replaced by machines), and even the rebels hope to return to a society where men do proper men's work and women do women's. The ambitious Anita is only ambitious for Paul's career and comes over as a kind of Lady Macbeth figure.

Then Jenny said, Ah yes, but one thing the book did accurately predict was the corporate wife! Jo and Ann and I said, But surely in 1952 the corporate wife already existed, though Jenny argued that after that there was a rise in the corporate wife as a significant social phenomenon. She and Doug and Trevor also very much appreciated the satirical portrayal of a corporate morale-boosting, male-bonding weekend, which Doug found amazingly accurate as an account of such events to this day. However, I found it tediously overdone, with nothing of the light touch you find in Slaughterhouse 5.

They also appreciated the device of the visiting Shah of Bratphur, who views the supposedly advanced society with an uncomprehending and usefully fresh eye, significantly unable to distinguish the Reeks and Wrecks workers from slaves, although Doug said he was disappointed that the Shah wasn't more radically worked into the development of the plot.

I said that to me the book didn't actually feel very original, even for 1952, but because I've read so little science fiction I couldn't support my case. Others agreed, but Trevor said I may as well accuse Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four of being derivative - which in fact it was, he said, being actually a rewrite of We, the novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which Orwell had actually previously reviewed. All of these books have similar predictions, anyway, he said. I answered that if a book is not particularly well written, which I didn't think this one was, and if it sets out merely to predict the future without much further theme or subtext or much deep insight into the human condition - another way in which I think this book fails - then it better be damned original in its predictions. However on reflection since, I have decided that the reason I felt that the book lacked originality was that its intent, like that of much science fiction, was not so much to make predictions as to satirise social trends already in motion at the time of writing, and I suppose whether you think the book succeeds depends on whether you think the satire is successful, which I don't.

This discussion didn't last very long, and we very soon ended up talking instead about the issues it had raised...

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

1 comment:

K M Kelly said...

An interesting view. I'm actually a huge Vonnegut fan. Slaughterhouse 5 was the first of his that I read and since then I've devoured his other work. Reading your review though I'm surprised - I hadn't realised how long ago it was written. I thought it was much more recent.
As for Player Piano, I found it's social statements eerily prophetic. I have a horrible feelign that we are living in that world now. Maybe that is why you found it hard to engage with it.