Player Piano
Kurt Vonnegut

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Player Piano


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Player Piano

Copyright © 1952, 1980 by Kurt Vonnegut

Chapter I 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.
It was the original machine shop set up by Edison in I886, 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.

“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 the 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. [...] “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.”

Chapter III

Rudy acted as though the antique instrument were the newest of all wonders, and he excitedly pointed out identifiable musical patterns in the bobbing keys—trills, spectacular runs up the keyboard, and the slow methodical rise and fall of keys in the bass. “See—see them two go up and down, Doctor! Just the way the feller hit ’em. Look at ’em go!”

The music stopped abruptly, with the air of having delivered exactly five cents worth of joy. Rudy still shouted, “Makes you feel kind of creepy, don’t it, Doctor, watching them keys go up and down? You can almost see a ghost sitting there playing his heart out.”

Chapter VI He could handle his assignments all right, but he didn’t have what his father had, what Kroner had, what Shepherd had, what so many had: the sense of spiritual importance in what they were doing; the ability to be moved emotionally, almost like a lover, by the great omnipresent and omniscient spook, the corporate personality. In short, Paul missed what made his father aggressive and great: the capacity to really give a damn.
Chapter VIII

“Either a visitor is a nonentity, a friend, an employee, small brass, or big brass. The guard presses one of five buttons in the top row on the box. See it? Either the visitor is sight-seein’, inspectin’, makin’ a personal call, or here on business. The guard pushes one of four buttons in thet row. The machine has two lights, a red one for no, and a green one for yes. Whatever the policy is, bingo!—the lights tell him what to do.”

“Or we could tack a memo about policy on the guardhouse wall,” said Paul.

Bud looked startled. “Yes,” he said slowly, “you could do thet.” It was clear he thought it was a pretty drab man who would think much of that solution.



Chapter IX

“I thought seeing you would somehow clear up all sorts of problems, get me thinking straight,” said Finnerty. [...]

“I guess I looked forward to some sort of rebirth too,” said Paul.

“But you find out quick enough that old friends are old friends, and nothing more—no wiser, no more help than anyone else.”



“Well, you know, in a way I wish I hadn’t met you two. It’s much more convenient to think of the opposition as a nice homogeneous, dead-wrong mass. Now I’ve got to muddy my thinking with exceptions.”

“When I had a congregation before the war, I used to tell them that the life of their spirit in relation to God was the biggest thing in their lives, and that their part in the economy was nothing by comparison. Now, you people have engineered them out of their part in the economy, in the market place, and they’re finding out—most of them—that what’s left is just about zero. A good bit short of enough, anyway. [...]”

Lasher sighed. “What do you expect?” he said. “For generations they’ve been built up to worship competition and the market, productivity and economic usefulness, and the envy of their fellow men—and boom! it’s all yanked out from under them. They can’t participate, can’t be useful any more.”

“You keep giving the managers and engineers a bad time,” said Paul. “What about the scientists? It seems to me that—”

“Outside the discussion,” said Lasher impatiently. “They simply add to knowledge. It isn’t knowledge that’s making trouble, but the uses it’s put to.”

Chapter XI

Lynn was boyish, tall, beautiful, and disarming, and, Halyard thought bitterly, he had gone directly from a three-hour television program to the White House.

“Is this man the spiritual leader of the American people?” asked Khashdrahr.

Halyard explained the separation of Church and State, and met, as he had expected to meet, with the Shah’s usual disbelief and intimations that he, Halyard, hadn’t understood the question at all.


Separation of church and state

And Halyard suddenly realized that, just as religion and government had been split into disparate entities centuries before, now, thanks to the machines, politics and government lived side by side, but touched almost nowhere. He stared at President Jonathan Lynn and imagined with horror what the country must have been like when, as today, any damn fool little American boy might grow up to be President, but when the President had had to actually run the country!

Chapter XIV

Doctor Paul Proteus was a man with a secret. Most of the time it was an exhilarating secret, and he extracted momentary highs of joy from it while dealing with fellow members of the system in the course of his job. At the beginning and close of each item of business he thought, “To hell with you.”

It was to hell with them, to hell with everything. This secret detachment gave him a delightful sense of all the world’s being a stage. Waiting until the time when he and Anita would be in mental shape to quit and start a better life, Paul acted out his role as manager of the Ilium Works. Outwardly, as manager, he was unchanged; but inwardly he was burlesquing smaller, less free souls who would have taken the job seriously.

Chapter XV Then he saw how tense the man was, and realized that what Pond was talking about was, by God, integrity. This pipsqueak of a man in a pipsqueak job had pipsqueak standards he was willing to lay his pipsqueak life down for. And Paul had a vision of civilization as a vast and faulty dike, with thousands of men like Doctor Pond in a rank stretching to the horizon, each man grimly stopping a leak with his finger.



“The modern world would grind to a halt if there weren’t men with enough advanced training to keep the complicated parts of civilization working.”

“Um,” said Mr. Haycox apathetically. “What do you keep working so smoothly?”

Doctor Pond smiled modestly. “I spent seven years in the Cornell Graduate School of Realty to qualify for a Doctor of Realty degree and get this job.”

“Call yourself a doctor, too, do you?” said Mr. Haycox.

“I think I can say without fear of contradiction that I earned that degree,” said Doctor Pond coolly. “My thesis was the third longest in any field in the country that year—eight hundred and ninety-six pages, double-spaced, with narrow margins.”

“Real-estate salesman,” said Mr. Haycox. [...] “I’m doctor of cowshit, pigshit, and chickenshit,” he said. “When you doctors figure out what you want, you’ll find me out in the barn shoveling my thesis.”



Chapter XVII [...] a postwar development of three thousand dream houses for three thousand families with presumably identical dreams.
Chapter XVIII

“Hell, everybody used to have some personal skill or willingness to work or something he could trade for what he wanted. Now that the machines have taken over, it’s quite somebody who has anything to offer. All most people can do is hope to be given something.”

“If someone has brains,” said Anita firmly, “he can still get to the top. That’s the American way, Paul, and it hasn’t changed.” She looked at him appraisingly. “Brains and nerve, Paul.”

“And blinders.”



Chapter XXI This silly playlet seemed to satisfy them completely as a picture of what they were doing, why they were doing it, and who was against them, and why some people were against them. It was a beautifully simple picture these procession leaders had. It was as though a navigator, in order to free his mind of worries, had erased all the reefs from his maps.



Chapter XXII

“Everybody’s shaking in his boots, so don’t be bluffed.”

“No, sir.”

“Nobody’s so damn well educated that you can’t learn ninety per cent of what he knows in six weeks. The other ten per cent is decoration.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Show me a specialist, and I’ll show you a man who’s so scared he’s dug a hole for himself to hide in.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Almost nobody’s competent, Paul. It’s enough to make you cry to see how bad most people are at their jobs. If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you’re a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Want to be rich, Paul?”

“Yes, sir—I guess so. Yes, sir.”

“All right. I got rich, and I told you ninety per cent of what I know about it. The rest is decoration. All right?”

“Yes, sir.”



Chapter XXIII

None of this had anything to do with him any more. Better to be nothing than a blind doorman at the head of civilization’s parade.

And as Paul said these things to himself, a wave of sadness washed over them as though they’d been written in sand. He was understanding now that no man could live without roots—roots in a patch of desert, a red clay field, a mountain slope, a rocky coast, a city street. In black loam, in mud or sand or rock or asphalt or carpet, every man had his roots down deep—in home. A lump grew in his throat, and he couldn’t do anything about it. Doctor Paul Proteus was saying goodbye forever to home.

Chapter XXIV

“He watched his brother find peace of mind through psychiatry. That’s why he won’t have anything to do with it.”

“I don’t follow. Isn’t his brother happy?”

“Utterly and always happy. And my husband says somebody’s just got to be maladjusted; that somebody’s got to be uncomfortable enough to wonder where people are, where they’re going, and why they’re going there.”



“He said goodbye and good luck, and that some of the greatest prophets were crazy as bedbugs.”



Chapter XXIX

“You don’t matter,” said Finnerty. “You belong to History now.”

A heavy door thumped shut, and Paul knew that he was alone again, and that History, somewhere on the other side of the door, would let him out only when it was good and ready to.



Chapter XXX

“He isn’t anybody’s, and never will be. He never joined anything, his father never joined anything, and his grandfather never joined anything, and if he ever has a son, he’ll never join anything either.”

“What’s his reason?” asked Paul.

“Says it’s all he can do to figure out what he represents without trying to represent a thousand other people besides,” said Finnerty.

“Are there any conditions under which he’d join?” asked the man who’d been nervous about loose recruiting methods.

“One,” said Finnerty. “When everybody looks and thinks exactly the way Alfy Tucci does.”

Lasher smiled sadly. “The great American individual,” he said. “Thinks he’s the embodiment of liberal thought throughout the ages. Stands on his own two feet, by God, alone and motionless. He’d make a good lamp post, if he’d weather better and didn’t have to eat.”



“You perhaps disagree with the antique and vain notion of Man’s being a creation of God.

“But I find it a far more defensible belief than the one implicit in intemperate faith in lawless technological progress—namely, that man is on earth to create more durable and efficient images of himself, and, hence, to eliminate any justification at all for his own continued existence.”



Chapter XXXI

Here it was again, the most ancient of roadforks, one that Paul had glimpsed before, in Kroner’s study, months ago. The choice of one course or the other had nothing to do with machines, hierarchies, economics, love, age. It was a purely internal matter. Every child older than six knew the fork, and knew what the good guys did here, and what the bad guys did here. The fork was a familiar one in folk tales the world over, and the good guys and the bad guys, whether in chaps, breechclouts, serapes, leopardskins, or banker’s gray pinstripes, all separated here.

Bad guys turned informer. Good guys didn’t—no matter when, no matter what.

Kroner cleared his throat. “I said, ‘who’s their leader, Paul?’ ”

“I am,” said Paul. “And I wish to God I were a better one.”

The instant he’d said it, he knew it was true, and knew what his father had known—what it was to belong and believe.

Chapter XXXII

“The first step would be to get Americans to agree that limitations be placed on the scope of machines.”

“You would get this agreement by force, if necessary? You would force this artificial condition, this step backward, on the American people?”

“What distinguishes man from the rest of the animals is his ability to do artificial things,” said Paul. “To his greater glory, I say. And a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.”

The machines and the institutions of government were so integrated that trying to attack one without damaging the other was like trying to remove a diseased brain in order to save a patient. There would have to be a seizure of power—a benevolent seizure, but a seizure nonetheless.
Chapter XXXIV

“You can’t ask men to attack pillboxes cold sober,” said Finnerty.

“And you can’t ask them to stop when they’re drunk,” said Paul.

text checked (see note) Nov 2010

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