Friday, 4 August 2006

Review: Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut (1952)

Vonnegut's satirical reach is refreshing. In this snapshot of the future (note publication date) he winds up the stoney-eyed simulacrum of Metropolis and gives us a binary class system: the engineers and managers vs. the average man. It takes a doctorate to become a real estate agent. The centralised planning of production — originally introduced during the most recent war — has generated mass unemployment and the plebs are either in the army or on road crews (Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps). A typical exemplar is Edgar R. B. Hagstrohm — chosen by the computer database to be shown to a visiting potentate, the Shah of Bratpuhr, who thinks that these people are all slaves.

The personnel machines had considered the problem and ejected the card of Edgar R. B. Hagstrohm, who was statistically average in every respect save the number of his initials: his age (36), his height (5'7"), his eight (148 lbs.), his years of marriage (22), his I.Q. (83), the number of his children (2: 1 m., 9; 1 f., 6), the number of his bedrooms (2), his car (3 yr. old Chev. 2 dr. sed.), his education (h.s. grad, 117th in class of 233; maj. in business practice; 2nd string f'ball, b'k'tb'l; soc. comm., sen'r play; no coll.), his vocation (R&R), his avocations (spec'r sports, TV, softb'l, f'sh'g), and his war record (5 yrs., 3 ov'sea; T-4 radioman; 157th Inf. Div.; battle stars: Hjoring, Elbesan, Kabul, Kaifen, Ust Kyakhta; wounded 4 times; P'ple H't, 3 cl.; Silv. Star; Br'ze Star, 2 cl., G'd Cond. Med.).

But the real drama in this wonderful, dark and intriguing novel occurs in the life of the protagonist, Paul Proteus, head of the Ilium Works, a massive, computer-automated manufacturing plant in New York State. Because Paul wants out. The pressure of his boss, his wife and his society are ranged against his desire not to give his friend up to the authorities, who continue to fear subversives.

Strange things happen occasionally, as Proteus discovers when he goes to the police station after being fired from his job:

While he waited for someone to notice him, he interested himself in the radiophoto machine behind glass in one corner, which was fashioning a portrait of a fugitive, and noting beside it a brief biography. The portrait emerged from a slit in the top of the machine bit by bit—first the hair, then the brows, on line with the word WANTED, and then, on line with the large, fey eyes, the name: Edgar Rice Burroughs Hagstrohm, R&R-131313. Hagstrohm's sordid tale emerged along with his nose: "Hagstrohm cut up his M-17 home in Chicago with a blow-torch, went naked to the home of Mrs. Marion Frascati, the widow of an old friend, and demanded that she come to the woods with him. Mrs. Frascati refused, and he disappeared into the bird sanctuary bordering the housing development. There he eluded police, and is believed to have made his escape dropping from a tree onto a passing freight—"
  "You!" said the desk sergeant. "Proteus!"

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