Player Piano, Vonnegut's first published novel, enjoyed a mixed success, the original Scribners edition being followed within two years by the 1953 Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club edition and a Bantam paperback with a new title, Utopia 14, in 1954. These editions increased sales but furthered the tendency to categorize him as a science-fiction writer, thus excluding him from consideration as a mainstream American novelist. The novel depicts a technologically advanced, highly regulated society set in a future United States. While everyone is provided for, only an elite of technicians and managers has any real purpose, and eventually the protagonist, Paul Proteus, joins with those made useless by technology in a rebellion against the system. The title derives from the fact that the player piano, with its key-punched paper rolls displacing the pianist, is one of the earliest applications of automation.
In some respects Player Piano appears autobiographical, reflecting Vonnegut's resignation from General Electric to become a full-time writer. The implied commentary is divided between the protagonist, who rebels against the Ilium Works, and a minor character known simply as Ed, whose wife has turned to prostitution rather than have him compromise his artistic integrity by writing a book that will sell. By a kind of comic inversion Vonnegut makes Ed's situation say much about his own. Ed writes "beautifully" and works on anti-machinery novels, whereas Vonnegut tells self-deprecating jokes about his own style. Obviously Vonnegut had made some of the compromises that Ed refuses: he had written public-relations material, he was now aiming short stories at a commercial market, and at times financial security must have seemed precarious enough to raise questions about the integrity that led him from General Electric to full-time fiction writing. In Ed, then, is the forerunner of Kilgore Trout and other personae that Vonnegut uses to mock his own role.
Yet Paul Proteus may actually reflect Vonnegut's situation more searchingly. Paul questions his own motives, suspecting that he may be going through a period of personal uncertainty rather than a real revaluation of his social and professional environment. Such doubts possibly worked in Vonnegut's mind while the novel was being written. He had, after all, made an abrupt change in lifestyle that proved economically risky and that involved turning away from his involvement in a technological society and breaking with former friends and their world to become an iconoclastic outsider. There is even the suggestion that Paul's social rebellion in fact expresses a wish to destroy his father. Father/son relationships are a continuing motif in Vonnegut's work. Just as Paul turns away from emulating his engineer-manager father, Vonnegut has departed from the scientific educations and professions of the males in his family.
In other respects Player Piano is derivative, admittedly drawing on its widely popular dystopian forebear, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). In its themes and techniques, however, Player Piano points the way to Vonnegut's later novels in its treatment of scientific ethics, technology as a two-edged sword, the individual's need not simply for a comfortable existence but for purpose, and the search to overcome loneliness when friendships and marriages fail. Similarly, in ending with scenes of destruction, the novel sets a pattern for the apocalyptic visions in the other novels leading up to Vonnegut's final confrontation with the Dresden firestorm in Slaughterhouse-Five. One significant thematic and structural pattern in Player Piano involves the classical and religious mythic pattern of the hero's descent into a netherworld in order to be resurrected, rejuvenated and enlightened, and often hailed as a messianic figure. In this instance a hesitant Paul Proteus is literally taken underground to undergo conversion and surface as the messiah of the rebellion. Variations of this pattern, which also echoes Vonnegut's personal experience in his descent into the underground shelter in Dresden, recur in most of the novels.
There are also patterns in the techniques through which Vonnegut's persistent themes are approached. Evident in this novel are the beginnings of Vonnegut's technique of defamiliarizing the everyday - sometimes through hyperbole; sometimes through naive, almost childlike depiction; and sometimes by the use of an outside observer, such as the bewildered Shah of Bratpuhr here. A triangle of two male characters and one female character - here Paul, his wife Anita, and antagonist Dr. Lawson Shepherd - also becomes a repeated structure in Vonnegut's fiction, seemingly echoing his family situation with his siblings. The interweaving of several subplots that serve his various social commentaries also is now a familiar technique. Here the central "PP" (Paul Proteus/Player Piano) plot becomes an axis around which the "H" subplots (Homestead/Hacketts/Hagstrohm/Haycox/Halyard) rotate. The tone, of a weary but forgiving cynicism nevertheless able to laugh at absurdities, grows more confident in his subsequent novels.
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