Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut (1952; Dial Press, 1999, 352pp.)
Welcome to Ilium, New York, a dystopia where machines have overtaken the usefulness of the common worker. Vonnegut follows the standard formula in his offering to the dystopian genre: the protagonist, trapped in a severely flawed society, tries to overcome his plight and ends up, more often than not, as just another casualty of the system. In this case, the hero is Dr. Paul Proteus, an engineer and one of the big wigs at Ilium Works. Education and money divide the city into the haves and the have nots, with the highest paying jobs going to those who have earned at least a master’s degree (those with less than a bachelor’s are assigned manual labor). Proteus feels stifled by the boring life of social functions and parties, and often goes slumming in the poorer parts of the city. Here, he is witness to the life of the “common people,” the undereducated second-class citizens who have lost their jobs to machines, and soon comes to empathize more with them than with his own class. When he is contacted by the infamous Ghost Shirt Society, an underground organization that seeks to overthrow the machines, he is given a chance to change the face of society itself. It’s not exactly an original idea, but it is a classic one in science fiction: what happens when man’s role in society is replaced by the very inventions he created to make his life easier? Player Piano is a timeless book about modern man’s fear of technology’s possibilities, and the universal worry that society as we know it will change beyond our recognition. This is a very funny, sarcastic vision of the future that any lover of classic science fiction is guaranteed to love.
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