“A funny, savage appraisal of a totally automated American society of the future.”—San Francisco Chronicle
Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel spins the chilling tale of engineer Paul Proteus, who must find a way to live in a world dominated by a supercomputer and run completely by machines. Paul’s rebellion is vintage Vonnegut—wildly funny, deadly serious, and terrifyingly close to reality.
Praise for Player Piano
“An exuberant, crackling style . . . Vonnegut is a black humorist, fantasist and satirist, a man disposed to deep and comic reflection on the human dilemma.”—Life
“His black logic . . . gives us something to laugh about and much to fear.”—The New York Times Book Review
Release date: September 30, 2009
Publisher: The Dial Press
Print pages: 352
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In the northwest are the managers and engineers and civil servants and a few professional people; in the northeast are the machines; and in the south, across the Iroquois River, is the area known locally as Homestead, where almost all of the people live.
If the bridge across the Iroquois were dynamited, few daily routines would be disturbed. Not many people on either side have reasons other than curiosity for crossing.
During the war, in hundreds of Iliums over America, managers and engineers learned to get along without their men and women, who went to fight. It was the miracle that won the war—production with almost no manpower. In the patois of the north side of the river, it was the know-how that won the war. Democracy owed its life to know-how.
Ten years after the war—after the men and women had come home, after the riots had been put down, after thousands had been jailed under the antisabotage laws--Doctor Paul Proteus was petting a cat in his office. He was the most important, brilliant person in Ilium, the manager of the Ilium Works, though only thirty-five. He was tall, thin, nervous, and dark, with the gentle good looks of his long face distorted by dark-rimmed glasses.
He didn't feel important or brilliant at the moment, nor had he for some time. His principle concern just then was that the black cat be contented in its new surroundings.
Those old enough to remember and too old to compete said affectionately that Doctor Proteus looked just as his father had as a young man—and it was generally understood, resentfully in some quarters, that Paul would someday rise almost as high in the organization as his father had. His father, Doctor George Proteus, was at the time of his death the nation's first National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director, a position approached in importance only by the presidency of the United States.
As for the Proteus genes' chances of being passed down to yet another generation, there were practically none. Paul's wife, Anita, his secretary during the war, was barren. Ironically as anyone would please, he had married her after she had declared that she was certainly pregnant, following an abandoned office celebration of victory.
"Like that, kitty?" With solicitousness and vicarious pleasure, young Proteus ran a roll of blueprints along the cat's arched back. "Mmmm-aaaaah—good, eh?" He had spotted her that morning, near the golf course, and had picked her up as a mouser for the plant. Only the night before, a mouse had gnawed through the insulation on a control wire and put buildings 17, 19, and 21 temporarily out of commission.
Paul turned on his intercom set. "Katharine?"
"Yes, Doctor Proteus?"
"Katharine, when's my speech going to be typed?"
"I'm doing it now, sir. Ten, fifteen minutes, I promise."
Doctor Katharine Finch was his secretary, and the only woman in the Ilium Works. Actually, she was more a symbol of rank than a real help, although she was useful as a stand-in when Paul was ill or took a notion to leave work early. Only the brass--plant managers and bigger—had secretaries. During the war, the managers and engineers had found that the bulk of secretarial work could be done—as could most lower-echelon jobs—more quickly and efficiently and cheaply by machines. Anita was about to be dismissed when Paul had married her. Now, for instance, Katharine was being annoyingly unmachinelike, dawdling over Paul’s speech, and talking to her presumed lover, Doctor Bud Calhoun, at the same time.
Bud, who was manager of the petroleum terminal in Ilium, worked only when shipments came or went by barge or pipeline, and he spent most of his time between these crises—as now—filling Katharine's ears with the euphoria of his Georgia sweet talk.
Paul took the cat in his arms and carried her to the enormous floor-to-ceiling window that comprised one wall. "Lots and lots of mice out there, Kitty," he said.
He was showing the cat an old battlefield at peace. Here, in the basin of the river bend, the Mohawks had overpowered the Algonquins, the Dutch the Mohawks, the British the Dutch, the Americans the British. Now, over bones and rotten palings and cannon balls and arrowheads, there lay a triangle of steel and masonry buildings, a half-mile on each side—the Illium Works. Where men had once howled and hacked at one another, and fought nip-and-tuck with nature as well, the machines hummed and whirred and clicked, and made parts for baby carriages and bottle caps, motorcycles and refrigerators, television sets and tricycles—the fruits of peace.
Paul raised his eyes above the rooftops of the great triangle to the glare of the sun on the Iroquois River, and beyond--to Homestead, where many of the pioneer names still lived: van Zandt, Cooper, Cortland, Stokes . . .
"Doctor Proteus?" It was Katharine again.
"It's on again."
"Three in building 58?"
"Yessir—the light's on again."
"All right—call Doctor Shepherd and find out what he's doing about it."
"He's sick today. Remember?"
"Then it's up to me, I guess." He put on his coat, sighed with ennui, picked up the cat, and walked into Katharine's office. "Don't get up, don't get up," he said to Bud, who was stretched out on a couch.
"Who was gonna get up?" said Bud.
Three walls of the room were solid with meters from baseboard to molding, unbroken save for the doors leading into the outer hall and into Paul's office. The fourth wall, as in Paul's office, was a single pane of glass. The meters were identical, the size of cigarette packages, and stacked like masonry, each labeled with a bright brass plate. Each was connected to a group of machines somewhere in the Works. A glowing red jewel called attention to the seventh meter from the bottom, fifth row to the left, on the east wall.
Paul tapped on the meter with his finger. "Uh-huh—here we go again: number three in 58 getting rejects, all right." He glanced over the rest of the instruments. "Guess that's all, eh?"
"Just that one."
"Whatch goin' do with thet cat?" said Bud.
Paul snapped his fingers. "Say, I'm glad you asked that. I have a project for you, Bud. I want some sort of signaling device that will tell this cat where she can find a mouse."
"I should hope so."
"You'd need some kind of sensin' element thet could smell a mouse."
"Or a rat. I want you to work on it while I'm gone."
As Paul walked out to his car in the pale March sunlight, he realized that Bud Calhoun would have a mouse alarm designed—one a cat could understand—by the time he got back to the office. Paul sometimes wondered if he wouldn't have been more content in another period of history, but the rightness of Bud's being alive now was beyond question. Bud's mentality was one that had been remarked upon as being peculiarly American since the nation had been born—the restless, erratic insight and imagination of a gadgeteer. This was the climax, or close to it, of generations of Bud Calhouns, with almost all of American industry integrated into one stupendous Rube Goldberg machine.
Paul stopped by Bud's car, which was parked next to his. Bud had shown off its special features to him several times, and, playfully, Paul put it through its paces. "Let's go," he said to the car.
A whir and a click, and the door flew open. "Hop in," said a tape recording under the dashboard. The starter spun, the engine caught and idled down, and the radio went on.
Gingerly, Paul pressed a button on the steering column. A motor purred, gears grumbled softly, and the two front seats lay down side by side like sleepy lovers. It struck Paul as shockingly like an operating table for horses he had once seen in a veterinary hospital—where the horse was walked alongside the tipped table, lashed to it, anesthetized, and then toppled into operating position by the gear-driven table top. He could see Katharine Finch sinking, sinking, sinking, as Bud, his hand on the button, crooned. Paul raised the seats with another button. "Goodbye," he said to the car.
The motor stopped, the radio winked off, and the door slammed. "Don't take any wooden nickels," called the car as Paul climbed into his own. "Don't take any wooden nickels, don't take any wooden nickels, don't take any—"
Bud's car fell silent, apparently at peace.
Paul drove down the broad, clean boulevard that split the plant, and watched the building numbers flash by. A station wagon, honking its horn, and its occupants waving to him, shot past in the opposite direction, playfully zigzagging on the deserted street, heading for the main gate. Paul glanced at his watch. That was the second shift just coming off work. It annoyed him that sophomoric high spirits should be correlated with the kind of young men it took to keep the plant going. Cautiously, he assured himself that when he, Finnerty, and Shepherd had come to work in the Ilium Works thirteen years before, they had been a good bit more adult, less cock-sure, and certainly without the air of belonging to an elite.
Some people, including Paul's famous father, had talked in the old days as though engineers, managers, and scientists were an elite. And when things were building up to the war, it was recognized that American know-how was the only answer to the prospective enemy's vast numbers, and there was talk of deeper, thicker shelters for the possessors of know-how, and of keeping this cream of the population out of the front-line fighting. But not many had taken the idea of an elite to heart. When Paul, Finnerty, and Shepherd had graduated from college, early in the war, they had felt sheepish about not going to fight, and humbled by those who did go. But now this elite business, this assurance of superiority, this sense of rightness about the hierarchy topped by managers and engineers--this was instilled in all college graduates, and there were no bones about it.
Paul felt better when he got into Building 58, a long, narrow structure four blocks long. It was a pet of his. He'd been told to have the north end of the building torn down and replaced, and he'd talked Headquarters out of it. The north end was the oldest building in the plant, and Paul had saved it—because of its historical interest to visitors, he'd told Headquarters. But he discouraged and disliked visitors, and he'd really saved Building 58's north end for himself. It was the original machine shop set up by Edison in 1886, the same year in which he opened another in Schenectady, and visiting it took the edge off Paul's periods of depression. It was a vote of confidence from the past, he thought--where the past admitted how humble and shoddy it had been, where one could look from the old to the new and see that mankind really had come a long way. Paul needed that reassurance from time to time.
Objectively, Paul tried to tell himself, things really were better than ever. For once, after the great bloodbath of the war, the world really was cleared of unnatural terrors--mass starvation, mass imprisonment, mass torture, mass murder. Objectively, know-how and world law were getting their long-awaited chance to turn earth into an altogether pleasant and convenient place in which to sweat out Judgment Day.
Paul wished he had gone to the front, and heard the senseless tumult and thunder, and seen the wounded and dead, and maybe got a piece of shrapnel through his leg. Maybe he'd be able to understand then how good everything now was by comparison, to see what seemed so clear to others—that what he was doing, had done, and would do as a manager and engineer was vital, above reproach, and had, in fact, brought on a golden age. Of late, his job, the system, and organizational politics had left him variously annoyed, bored, or queasy.
He stood in the old part of Building 58, which was now filled with welding machines and a bank of insulation braiders. It soothed him to look up at the wooden rafters, uneven with ancient adze marks beneath flaking calcimine, and at the dull walls of brick soft enough for men—God knows how long ago—to carve their initials in: "KTM," "DG," "GP," "BDH," "HB," "NNS." Paul imagined for a moment—as he often imagined on visits to Building 58—that he was Edison, standing on the threshold of a solitary brick building on the banks of the Iroquois, with the upstate winter slashing through the broomcorn outside. The rafters still bore the marks of what Edison had done with the lonely brick barn: bolt holes showed where overhead shafts had once carried power to a forest of belts, and the wood-block floor was black with the oil and scarred by the feet of the crude machines the belts had spun.
On his office wall, Paul had a picture of the shop as it had been in the beginning. All of the employees, most of them recruited from surrounding farms, had stood shoulder to shoulder amid the crude apparatus for the photograph, almost fierce with dignity and pride, ridiculous in stiff collars and derbies. The photographer had apparently been accustomed to taking pictures of athletic teams and fraternal organizations, for the picture had the atmosphere, after the fashion of the day, of both. In each face was a defiant promise of physical strength, and at the same time, there was the attitude of a secret order, above and apart from society by virtue of participating in important and moving rites the laity could only guess about—and guess wrong. The pride in strength and important mystery showed no less in the eyes of the sweepers than in those of the machinists and inspectors, and in those of the foreman, who alone was without a lunchbox.
A buzzer sounded, and Paul stepped to one side of the aisle as the sweeping machine rattled by on its rails, whooshing up a cloud of dust with spinning brooms, and sucking up the cloud with a voracious snout. The cat in Paul's arms clawed up threads from his suit and hissed at the machine.
Paul's eyes began to nag him with a prickling sensation, and he realized that he'd been gazing into the glare and sputter of the welding machines without protecting his eyes. He clipped dark glasses over his spectacles, and strode through the antiseptic smell of ozone toward lathe group three, which was in the center of the building, in the new part.
He paused for a moment by the last welding-machine group, and wished Edison could be with him to see it. The old man would have been enchanted. Two steel plates were stripped from a pile, sent rattling down a chute; were seized by mechanical hands and thrust under the welding machine. The welding heads dropped, sputtered, and rose. A battery of electric eyes balefully studied the union of the two plates, signaled a meter in Katharine's office that all was well with welding-machine group five in Building 58, and the welded plates skittered down another chute into the jaws of the punch-press group in the basement. Every seventeen seconds, each of the twelve machines in the group completed the cycle.
Looking the length of Building 58, Paul had the impression of a great gymnasium, where countless squads practiced precision calisthenics—bobbing, spinning, leaping, thrusting, waving. . . . This much of the new era Paul loved: the machines themselves were entertaining and delightful.
Cursorily, he opened the control box for the welding-machine group, and saw that the machines were set to run for three more days. After that, they would shut down automatically until Paul received new orders from headquarters and relayed them to Doctor Lawson Shepherd, who was second-in-command and responsible for Buildings 53 through 71. Shepherd, who was sick today, would then set the controls for a new batch of refrigerator backs—however many backs EPICAC, a computing machine in Carlsbad Caverns, felt the economy could absorb.
Paul, calming the anxious cat with his long, slender fingers, wondered indifferently if Shepherd really was sick. Probably not. More likely, he was seeing important people, trying to get transferred out from under Paul.
Shepherd, Paul, and Edward Finnerty had all come to Ilium together as youngsters. Now Finnerty had moved on to bigger things in Washington; Paul had been given the highest job in Ilium; and Shepherd, sulky and carping, but efficient, had, in his own eyes, been humiliated by being named second-in-command to Paul. Transfers were an upper-echelon decision, and Paul hoped to God that Shepherd got one.
Paul arrived at lathe group three, the troublemaker he had come to see. He had been agitating a long time for permission to junk the group, without much luck. The lathes were of the old type, built originally to be controlled by men, and adapted during the war, clumsily, to the new techniques. The accuracy was going out of them, and, as the meter in Katharine's office had pointed out, rejects were showing up in quantity. Paul was willing to bet that the lathe group was ten per cent as wasteful as it had been in the days of human control and mountainous scrap heaps.
The group, five ranks of ten machines each, swept their tools in unison across steel bars, kicked out finished shafts onto continuous belts, stopped while raw bars dropped between their chucks and tailstocks, clamped down, and swept their tools across the bars, kicked out the finished shafts onto . . .
Paul unlocked the box containing the tape recording that controlled them all. The tape was a small loop that fed continuously between magnetic pickups. On it were recorded the movements of a master machinist turning out a shaft for a fractional horsepower motor. Paul counted back—eleven, twelve, thirteen years ago, he'd been in on the making of the tape, the master from which this one had been made. . . .
He and Finnerty and Shepherd, with the ink hardly dry on their doctorates, had been sent to one of the machine shops to make the recording. The foreman had pointed out his best man—what was his name?—and, joking with the puzzled machinest, the three bright young men had hooked up the recording apparatus to the lathe controls. Hertz! That had been the machinist's name—Rudy Hertz, an old-timer, who had been about ready to retire. Paul remembered the name now, and remembered the deference the old man had shown the bright young men.
Afterward, they'd got Rudy's foreman to let him off, and, in a boisterous, whimsical spirit of industrial democracy, they'd taken him across the street for a beer. Rudy hadn't understood quite what the recording instruments were all about, but what he had understood, he'd liked: that he, out of thousands of machinists, had been chosen to have his motions immortalized on tape.
And here, now, this little loop in the box before Paul, here was Rudy as Rudy had been to his machine that afternoon—Rudy, the turner-on of power, the setter of speeds, the controller of the cutting tool. This was the essence of Rudy as far as his machine was concerned, as far as the economy was concerned, as far as the war effort had been concerned. The tape was the essence distilled from the small, polite man with the big hands and black fingernails; from the man who thought the world could be saved if everyone read a verse from the Bible every night; from the man who adored a collie for want of children; from the man who . . . What else had Rudy said that afternoon? Paul supposed the old man was dead now--or in his second childhood in Homestead.
Now, by switching in lathes on a master panel and feeding them signals from the tape, Paul could make the essence of Rudy Hertz produce one, ten, a hundred, or a thousand of the shafts.
Paul closed the box's door. The tape seemed in good condition, and so were the pickups. Everything, in fact, was as ship-shape as could be expected, considering the antiquity of the machines. There were just going to have to be rejects, and that was that. The whole group belonged in a museum, not a production setup. Even the box was archaic—a vaultlike affair bolted to the floor, with a steel door and lock. At the time of the riots, right after the war, the master tapes had all been locked up in this way. Now, with the antisabotage laws as rigidly enforced as they were, the only protection the controls needed was from dust, cockroaches, and mice.
At the door, in the old part of the building once more, Paul paused for a moment to listen to the music of Building 58. He had had it in the back of his mind for years to get a composer to do something with it--the Building 58 Suite. It was wild and Latin music, hectic rhythms, fading in and out of phase, kaleidoscopic sound. He tried to separate and identify the themes. There! The lathe groups, the tenors: "Furrazz-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ak! ting! Furr-azz-ow-ow . . ." The welders, the baritones: "Vaaaaaaa-zuzip! Vaaaaaaa-zuzip!" And, with the basement as a resonating chamber, the punch presses, the basses: "Aw-grumph! tonka-tonka. Aw-grump! tonka-tonka . . ." It was exciting music, and Paul, flushed, his vague anxieties gone, gave himself over to it.
Out of the corner of his eye, a crazy, spinning movement caught his fancy, and he turned in his delight to watch a cluster of miniature maypoles braid bright cloth insulation about a black snake of cable. A thousand little dancers whirled about one another at incredible speeds, pirouetting, dodging one another, unerringly building their snug snare about the cable. Paul laughed at the wonderful machines, and had to look away to keep from getting dizzy. In the old days, when women had watched over the machines, some of the more simple-hearted had been found sitting rigidly at their posts, staring, long after quitting time.
His gaze fell upon an asymmetrical heart scratched into the old brick, and in its center, "K.L.—M.W.", and the date, "1931." K.L. and M.W. had taken a liking to one another, then, in the same year that Edison had died. Paul thought again of the fun of showing the old man around Building 58, and suddenly realized that most of the machinery would be old stuff, even to Edison. The braiders, the welders, the punch presses, the lathes, the conveyers—everything in sight, almost, had been around in Edison's time. The basic parts of the automatic controls, too, and the electric eyes and other elements that did and did better what human senses had once done for industry—all were familiar enough in scientific circles even in the nineteen-twenties. All that was new was the combination of these elements. Paul reminded himself to bring that out in his talk at the Country Club that night.
The cat arched her back and clawed at Paul's suit again. The sweeper was snuffling down the aisle toward them once more. It sounded its warning buzzer, and Paul stepped out of its path. The cat hissed and spat, suddenly raked Paul's hand with her claws, and jumped. With a bouncing, stiff-legged gait, she fled before the sweeper. Snatching, flashing, crashing, shrieking machines kept her in the middle of the aisle, yards ahead of the sweeper's whooshing brooms. Paul looked frantically for the switch that would stop the sweeper, but before he found it, the cat made a stand. She faced the oncoming sweeper, her needle-like teeth bared, the tip of her tail snapping back and forth. The flash of a welder went off inches from her eyes, and the sweeper gobbled her up and hurled her squalling and scratching into its galvanized tin belly.
Winded after a quarter-mile run through the length of the building, Paul caught the sweeper just as it reached a chute. It gagged, and spat the cat down the chute and into a freight car outside. When Paul got outside, the cat had scrambled up the side of the freight car, tumbled to the ground, and was desperately clawing her way up a fence.
"No, kitty, no!" cried Paul.
The cat hit the alarm wire on the fence, and sirens screamed from the gate house. In the next second the cat hit the charged wires atop the fence. A pop, a green flash, and the cat sailed high over the top strand as though thrown. She dropped to the asphalt—dead and smoking, but outside.
An armored car, its turret nervously jerking its brace of machine guns this way and that, grumbled to a stop by the small corpse. The turret hatch clanged open, and a plant guard cautiously raised his head. "Everything all right, sir?"
"Turn off the sirens. Nothing but a cat on the fence." Paul knelt, and looked at the cat through the mesh of the fence, frightfully upset. "Pick up the cat and take her to my office."
"Beg your pardon, sir?"
"The cat—I want her taken to my office."
"She's dead, sir."
"You heard me."
Paul was in the depths again as he climbed into his car in front of Building 58. There was nothing in sight to divert him, nothing but asphalt, a perspective of blank, numbered faades, and wisps of cold cirrus clouds in a strip of blue sky. Paul glimpsed the only life visible through a narrow canyon between Buildings 57 and 59, a canyon that opened onto the river and revealed a bank of gray porches in Homestead. On the topmost porch an old man rocked in a patch of sunlight. A child leaned over the railing and launched a square of paper in a lazy, oscillating course to the river's edge. The youngster looked up from the paper to meet Paul's gaze. The old man stopped rocking and looked, too, at the curiosity, a living thing in the Ilium Works.
As Paul passed Katharine Finch's desk on his way into his office, she held out his typewritten speech. "That's very good, what you said about the Second Industrial Revolution," she said.
"Old, old stuff."
"It seemed very fresh to me—I mean that part where you say how the First Industrial Revolution devalued muscle work, the the second one devalued routine mental work. I was fascinated."
"Norbert Wiener, a mathematician, said all that way back in the nineteen-forties. It's fresh to you because you're too young to know anything but the way things are now."
"Actually, it is kind of incredible that things were ever any other way, isn't it? It was so ridiculous to have people stuck in one place all day, just using their senses, then a reflex, using their senses, then a reflex, and not really thinking at all."
"Expensive," said Paul, "and about as reliable as a putty ruler. You can imagine what the scrap heap looked like, and what hell it was to be a service manager in those days. Hangovers, family squabbles, resentments against the boss, debts, the war—every kind of human trouble was likely to show up in a product one way or another." He smiled. "And happiness, too. I can remember when we had to allow for holidays, especially around Christmas. There wasn't anything to do but take it. The reject rate would start climbing around the fifth of December, and up and up it'd go until Christmas. Then the holiday, then a horrible reject rate; then New Year's, then a ghastly reject level. Then things would taper down to normal—which was plenty bad enough—by January fifteenth or so. We used to have to figure in things like that in pricing a product."
"Do you suppose there'll be a Third Industrial Revolution?"
Paul paused in his office doorway. "A third one? What would that be like?"
"I don't know exactly. The first and second ones must have been sort of inconceivable at one time."
"To the people who were going to be replaced by machines, maybe. A third one, eh? In a way, I guess the third one's been going on for some time, if you mean thinking machines. That would be the third revolution, I guess—machines that devaluate human thinking. Some of the big computers like EPICAC do that all right, in specialized fields."
"Uh-huh," said Katharine thoughtfully. She rattled a pencil between her teeth. "First the muscle work, then the routine work, then, maybe, the real brainwork."
"I hope I'm not around long enough to see that final step. Speaking of industrial revolutions, where's Bud?"
"A barge was coming in, so he had to get back to work. He left this for you." She handed him a crumpled laundry slip with Bud's name on it.
Paul turned the slip over and found, as he had expected, a circuit diagram for a mouse detector and alarm system that might very well work. "Astonishing mind, Katharine."
She nodded uncertainly.
Paul closed his door, locked it silently, and got a bottle from under papers in a bottom drawer. He blacked out for an instant under the gloriously hot impact of a gulp of whisky. He hid the bottle again, his eyes watering.
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