the Little Red Reviewer

Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut

Posted on: June 28, 2012

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

written in 1952

where I got it: owned









Ever read a book that takes place in the future?  of course, we all have, and we love them. How much manual labor do you see in those books? Probably not very much. Robots or machines do all the hard work so humans are available to have adventures and experience fun plot devices. Sure, people work, but not fifty hours a week at a saw mill or light bulb factory or textile factory. In the future, everything is automated.

But how did we get there?

In 1952 Kurt Vonnegut couldn’t have known what the future would bring. he couldn’t have known how labor unions would protest over robots in auto plants, that humanity would automate everything we possibly could and glorify automation, calling it  Freedom, in our science fiction. All he knew in 1952 was how fascinating it was to see a punch-card programmed machine cut highly detailed parts for a jet engine. And I imagine he thought to himself “how far can I take this?”

Taking place perhaps ten to twenty years in the future, Player Piano imagines a world in which everything is automated. Dr. Paul Proteus is the manager of the Ilium Works, a factory that includes acres upon acres of machines and motors and pistons and belts, but employs less than a hundred people, most of whom simply watch the machines to make sure they don’t break down.  Dr. Proteus’s star is rising in society, he’s all lined up for a promotion, and yet, he yearns to escape the system.

When his old friend Ed Finnerty arrives, Paul thinks Ed may be able to help him.  Ed knows something, but he’s useless and vague, and would rather get drunk on the poor side of town than have an actual useful conversation with Paul. The factory is split by the river: on one side lies the Illium Works factory and the wealthy people involved with it, and on the otherside live everyone else. If you can prove that a machine can’t do a job better than you can, your employment destiny lies with the army, or the government run Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps.  No matter how you choose to interpret that, it’s a shit gig, and alcoholism and suicide is rampant.

In a parallel plot line, the Shah of Bratpuhr is visiting the United States along with his translator, hoping to learn about how we have become the number one producer of well, everything. If he’s impressed with what he sees, the US will pay to build factories and infrastructure in his home country to help Bratpuhr enter a new paradigm of effeciency.  The book is worth reading just for the mistranslations and mistransliterations in these scenes.

The over automation that’s making American great has taken away people’s pride in doing a good job. It’s taken away all the value of having a work ethic, it’s taken away the personal pride of hard work, of doing anything worth time or value to another person. Why give a shit when a machine can do it better?  No matter how much you want to become a doctor of medicine or a surgeon, what’s the point, if you know that a machine will always be able to do it better?  when a machine will never make a mistake, never get sick, never ask for a raise or a day off, never come to work hungover, never ask for a smoke-break, and never get tired?

Is the book anti-capitalist? anti-efficiency? anti-factory? pro-union? anti-future? anti-utopian?  Maybe. Perhaps. To some people. But what Player Piano has in common with nearly everything of Vonnegut that I’ve read is that it’s anti-stupidity.

Vonnegut’s first full length novel, and a biting satire, Player Piano isn’t an overly fast paced novel, but I guarantee it will keep you reading. The over the top formal phone etiquette Proteus’s secretary uses is hysterical (yes, he has a secretary who makes and takes phone calls for him. Yes, this is a very, very dated book. dated books happen, get over it), the characters are compelling (you’ll want to punch Proteus’s wife), the end goes in an unexpected direction, and best of all, even though this book may have been written before your parents were born, it will make you think.

It’s been a handful of days since I finished the book, and the more I think about the story, the more I like it. And while I did enjoy it, I don’t know that Player Piano will ever be my favorite Vonnegut, and if you’ve never read him I still suggest starting elsewhere (Welcome to the Monkey House, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, Deadeye Dick are all great places to start).   You’ll get the most enjoyment out of the book if you read it in the times it was written, if you smile instead of cringe at the datedness of it, if you don’t judge it by today’s standards. Think of it as a satirical thesis, a treatise on the dangers of stupidity.

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13 Responses to "Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut"

I have read a few Vonnegut, but I need to check something else out by him. I haven’t read this one. Maybe I will see if the library has it.


i went through a stage where i read everything of his i could get my hands on, and i’m still trying track down a few titles. Library is your best bet, as about 10 years ago his more famous titles were reprinted, but mostly these books haven’t been in print since the late 70s.


I read this so long ago I can’t remember exactly when (probably early 1960s) it was or much about it. Your description sounds vaguely familiar. There was a time I read every Vonnegut book as it came out in paperback. I still think Cat’s Cradle is my favorite.


Cat’s Cradle is my favorite of his too! I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read it, and every time I finish it, I just want to read it all over again. It’s got a sad ending, but I always feel inspired by it.

I can completely understand if your memory of Player Piano is vague, compared to Vonnegut’s other books, this one is fairly forgettable.

I read Vonnegut’s as I find copies, which sadly isn’t easy these days.


Hi, crawled out from under my rock again for a review where I’m not sure if I should feel ashamed for never having heard of the author?? I liked your review. I’ve read books that have become dated and you do need to get over yourself a bit at first and although it can be a bit trying it’s sometimes really worth it. Some sci-fi authors were so good at actually not dating their novels – I haven’t read a lot of his books but Asimov was good at that. And Legend – it has a few things which are clearly out of date now but he kept his descriptions very minimal and it’s a good ploy.
BTW Bought Anno Dracula – just couldn’t resist!


omgosh, you don’t know who Kurt Vonnegut is? get thee to a library, right now! Look for Cat’s Cradle, or Welcome to the Monkey House. You’ll thank me, I promise.

and I think you’re going to enjoy Anno Dracula! 🙂


Or Slaughterhouse Five!


I’m always reluctant to recommend that as someone’s first Vonnegut. It’s a masterpiece for sure, but a bit of a shock to the system if you’re not already familiar with his writing style, you know?


Well, as I’ve already revealed just how big a numpty I am – is this sci fi or fantasy??
Lynn 😀


Vonnegut’s zany and surreal world reflects the absurdity of our own and really bended my mind to different modes of thinking. His work has inspired my own visual arts for quite some time and I created a tribute illustration of the author with the help of an old typewriter. You can see it at and tell me how his work and words also affected you.


Lynn – I’d have to say neither. it’s ummmm… satirical social commentary? Richard, what do you think?


Wow what a cover. That is all I have to say about that.


pretty attention grabbing!


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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