Archive for March, 2011

Review: Player Piano

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Player Piano is Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, and it is interesting both as a free standing novel and as a look at Vonnegut’s writing before he had completely found his voice.  As one moves through the novel, many of the touchstones of decent 1950’s science fictionrise out of the fog.  There is a theme of machines supplanting people who don’t quite see it coming leading to a distopia that comes on as if boiling the frog slowly.  There are the arguments for and against progress and its effect on the human spirit.  There is the future society that still looks a lot like 1950’s america in its gender and ethnic roles.  A couple chapters in and the reader has a pretty good idea where the book is going.  It never quite goes there smoothly.

Though Vonnegut has created a 1950’s SF world straight from central casting, he has filled it with proto-Vonnegut characters.  They aren’t quite people yet, but they’re full of heart and quirks and they never carry out their tasks as characters without bridling at the artifice of it.  There is a life in this world that makes every set piece a little messy and every plot twist a little bumpy, in all the ways that make the story and the point stronger.  These folks are not Kilgore Trout or Billy Pilgrim yet, but they are fleshy and confounding enough to feel real.

This is not my favorite Vonnegut novel by a long shot.  He has much more interesting things to say and more interesting ways to say them coming.  And this is still tied up in the world of 1950’s science fiction, rather than the richer places Vonnegut will take us.  Still, it is remarkable to see a great writer trying out his wings within the constraints of genre, and if not remaking it, showing how much room there is for life to show through.

Strongly recommended.