Saturday, August 6, 2022

Vonnegut's Player Piano (1952): A Dystopia for the Worst of Our Times

            A major threat to the U.S. Republic as I write in summer of 2022 is a potential American Right-wing (White, Christian) Nationalist Mass Movement led by Donald Trump or someone with more demagogic talent than he has. And that movement might be able to block or pervert the 2024 U.S. Presidential and other elections or have them be the last real elections for a long while. <>

            Against such a Right-wing movement we need a democratic united front of decent people with a variety of political loyalties. As the cliché has it, effective politics means coalition politics, and coalition politics requires people working together who disagree on a number of things.

            My idea of the United States is a diverse, secular, Federal Republic with some democratic institutions, aspects, and aspirations, and my social- and other-media messages so far have been directed primarily to my potential allies of a militant atheistic bent, telling them to look at the damn statistics already and realize they're going to have to work with the Religious Left and more generally, with decent religious individuals. There are no insurmountable problems if allies have some profound disagreements on basic beliefs, which can usually be ignored while people concentrate of practical projects. What can't be handled is trying to cooperate with people you openly and actively despise or have them work with you; and so I've asked my militantly atheistic brethren and sistren to tone it down (already) on the metaphysics, stick to immediate challenges — and practice some old-fashioned mannerly "cool correctness" (and screw authenticity: just be polite!). <>

            Well, polite and not so smugly comfortable. Back in the day, with the atheistic Existentialists of mid-20th c., atheists could recognize the old truth of "unaccommodated man" as "no more but such a poor bare, forked animal" as a guy mostly posing as a naked madman and beggar out in a storm — or newer truths of humankind as just a more or less interesting experiment in enlarged brains in a rather recently-evolved species on an unremarkable planet in an arm of an unremarkable galaxy among "billions and billions of stars" and other galaxies (as Carl Sagan used to say). <>

* * *

             What I want to give you some time with here is on a smaller scale but also likely to offend some liberals and those further Left: Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano (1952) — U.K. folk: your version is Michael D. Young's dystopia, The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) — glancing at a right to be angry on the part of a lot of Americans whose work has been devalued and who feel that they're held in casual contempt by various American elites. Hillary Clinton said it would be a gross overgeneralization, but "you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables": those sexists and racists et al. However the non-deplorables susceptible to Trumpism include mediocre people (the majority of us are mediocre at most things) whom opponents of Trumpism may be able to peel off from Trump — but first need to understand a bit and treat with more respect. Such people can be doing okay and be in many ways privileged and have legitimate grievances.

 It may seem odd at a time of low unemployment — hell, it may seem like another panicked neo-Luddite panicked over automation — but however automation to AI figures in important things are going on with the education-levels (or at least years of schooling) of US voters, and have been going on in a trend that may go 1952-2016. The Republicans have been losing highly schooled White folk; Americans without college degrees are very much in play and moving toward Republicans and to Donald Trump. <> And this is something decent folk need to look at.

 To move toward such a project, I give below some texts from Player Piano, and I have posted on "Views From a Jagged Orbit a study guide at least some of my students found useful (and, what the hell, I have it).

For now: Gang, if you've got a doctorate and you're not in the healing or spiritual arts — medical doctor, veterinarian, "Reverend Doctor ______," dentist — if you don't need the charisma of the title to do your job helping people, go with "Mister" or "Ms." or your elected title ("Senator," "Supervisor") or maybe even "Citizen" or just your first name. To rephrase an old line, "If you've got it, hide it, until you need it."



For background you might want to see one or more of the following books:

 Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review P, 1974.

 Buchanan, Ben, and Andrew Imbrie. The New Fire: War, Peace, and Democracy in the Age of AI. Cambridge, MA, and London, UK: The MIT Press, 2022.<,_Peace,_and_Democracy_in_the_Age_of_AI>

Faludi, Susan. Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. NYC: Harper Collins, 1999.(Follow-up to Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (Crown Publishing 1991).<>

 Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. NYC: Harper & Brothers, 1951: Part 2, Potential Converts. <>

Young, Michael. The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033: An essay on education and society. London: Thames and Hudson, 1958. NYC: Random House, 1959.

(For Vonnegut's male-centered, sometimes sexist views, read carefully — there's more subtlety here than usual in satire — note era of composition and date of publication, and cut him some, not much, but some slack. Ditto for other areas of insensitivity.)



(Excerpts; bold face emphasis, where it comes through, is Erlich's))

Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Player Piano (vt Utopia 14). New York: Scribner's, 1952. New York: Dell, 1974.



            This book is not a book about what is, but a book about what could be. […] ¶ It is mostly about managers and engineers. At this point in history, 1952 A.D. [i.e. "Anno Domini," Year of Our/The Lord" (Note: KV is a gentle atheist)], our lives and freedom depend largely upon the skill and imagination and courage of our managers and engineers, and I hope that God will help them to help us all stay alive and free. […]


 Chapter 1

            Opening: Ilium, New York is divided into three parts.

                        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 […] is the area known locally as Homestead, where almost all of the people live. (p. 9)

            Some people […] had talked in the old days as though engineers, managers, and scientists were an elite. […] But not many had taken the idea of an elite to heart. […] 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. [***]

            Objectively Paul [Proteus: protagonist] 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. (p. 14)

             Rudy Hertz (machinist whose movements recorded for machines to replace machinists): 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 [recording] tape was the essence distilled from the small, polite man with the big hands and black fingernails […]. ¶ 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 [that Rudy had machined]. (p. 18)

             Industrial Revolutions: "It seemed very fresh to me [Katharine Finch, Paul's secretary] — I mean the part where you say how the First Industrial Revolution devalued muscle work, then the second one devalued routine mental work. […]." / " Norbert Wiener […] said all that way back in the nineteen-forties." [***] [Paul:] "A third one? What would that be like? […] 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 devalue human thinking."  (pp. 21-22)


Chapter 2 (Roman numerals in Dell edition, which I've changed to Hindu/Arabic)

            [The Shah of Bratpuhr, on U.S. tour, through his nephew and translator, Khashdrahr Miasma] "The Shah," said Khashdrahr, "he would like, please to know who owns these slaves we see all the way up from New York City."

            "Not slaves," said [Doctor Ewing J.] Halyard [U.S. Dept. of State], chuckling patronizingly, "Citizens, employed by government. […] Before the war, they worked in the Ilium Works, controlling machines, but now machines control themselves much better. […] And any man who cannot support himself by doing a job better than a machine is employed by the government, either in the Army or the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps." (pp. 26-27 ["Reconstruction & Reclamation": "Reeks & Wrecks" in slang]) *** (p. 27)

            "Ahhhhh," said the Shah, "Ci-ti-zen." He grinned happily. "Takaru — citizen. Citizen — Takaru." ¶ "No Takaru!" said Halyard. ¶ Khashdrahr shrugged. "In the Shah's land are only the Elite and the Takaru." * * * [Moving around R&R road crew] "Thanks! It's about time!" said Halyard as the limousine eased past the man. / "You're welcome, Doc," said the man, and he spat in Halyard's face. (p. 29)


Chapter 3

            There were a few men in Homestead — like this bartender, the police and firemen, professional athletes, cab drivers, specially skilled artisans — who hadn't been displaced by machines. They lived among those who had been displaced, but they were aloof […]. The general feeling across the river [among the elite] was that these persons weren't too bright to be replaced by machines; they were simply in activities where machines weren't economical. (p. 33).

 Lie, but story of possible boy turning 18, time of the Tests

            [To Paul in a bar] Well, as long as such a smart man as you is here, maybe I could get you to give me some advice for the boy. He just finished his National General Classification Tests. He just about killed himself studying up for them, but it wasn't any use. He didn't do nearly well enough for college. There were only twenty-seven openings and six hundred kids trying for them […]. I can't afford to send him to a private school, so now he's got to decide what he'd going to do with his  life, Doctor: what's it going to be, the Army or the Reeks and Wrecks?" [* * *] ¶ "Doctor," said the man, desperately now […], "isn't there something the boy could do at the [Ilium] Works? He's awfully clever with his hands. He's got a kind of instinct with machines. […] / "He's got to have a graduate degree," said Paul. […] "That's policy […]. Maybe he could open a repair shop." / […] How many repair shops you think Ilium can support, eh? […] We're all so clever with our hands, so we'll all open repair shops. One repairman for every broken article in Ilium. Meanwhile, our wives clean up as dressmakers — one dressmaker for every woman in town." (pp. 36-37


Chapter 5

            After coffee and a liqueur, Paul gave a brief talk on the integration of the Ilium Works with other industry under the [U.S.] National Manufacturing Council fourteen years before. And then he went into the more general subject of what he called The Second Industrial Revolution.  […] Machines were doing America's work far better than Americans had ever done it. There were better goods for more people at less cost, and who could deny that that was magnificent and gratifying. [… Paul is interrupted by his boss — and boss to a lot of people — who wishes to expand on Paul's (quite standard) point:]

            [Kroner] "One horsepower equals about twenty-two manpower — big manpower. If you convert the horsepower of one of the bigger steel-mill motors into terms of manpower, you'll find that the motor [sic] does more work than the entire slave population of the United States at the time of the Civil War could do — and do it twenty-four hours a day." […]

            [Paul] "And that, of course, simply applies to the First Industrial Revolution, where machines devalued muscle power. The second revolution, the one we're now completing, is a little tougher to express in terms of work saved. If there were some measure like horsepower in which we could express annoyance or boredom that people used to experience in routine jobs — but there isn't."

            "You could measure rejects […] said [partner to Kroner in running the Eastern Division of US industry] Baer, "and the darnedest, stupidest mistakes imaginable. The waste, the stoppages, the lemons! […]

            "Yes," said Paul, "but I was thinking of it from the worker's point of view. The two industrial revolutions eliminated two kinds of drudgery, and I was looking for some way of estimating just how much the second revolution had relieved men of."

            "I work," said Baer [at the engineering parts of running Eastern Division]. Everyone laughed.

            "The others — across the river," said Paul.

            "They never did work," said Kroner, and again everyone laughed.

            "And they're reproducing like rabbits," said Anita [Paul's wife]. (pp. 56-57)


Chapter 8

            [Katharine Finch, Paul's secretary on Bud Calhoun, ace inventor — to Paul Proteus] "Bud wants a job."

            "Bud wants a job? He's got the fourth-highest-paid job in Ilium now. […]." [***]

            "Ah haven't got a job any more," said Bud. "Canned."

            "[…] What on earth for? […] What about the gadget you invented for —"

            "That's it," said Bud with an eerie mixture of pride and remorse. "Works. Does a fine job. […] Does it a whole lot better than Ah ever did it."

            "It runs the who operation?"

            "Yup. Some gadget."

            "And so you're out of a job."

            "Seventy-two of us are out of jobs," said Bud. […] Ouah job classification has been eliminated. Poof."[…] ¶ […] Now, personnel machines are over the country would be reset so as no longer to recognize the job as one suited for men. The combination of holes and nicks [on an «IBM card»] that Bud had been to personnel machines would no longer be acceptable." [...] ¶ "They don't need [people classified] P-128s any more," said Bud bleakly, "and nothing's open above or below. Ah'd take a cut and go back to P-129 or even P-130, but it's no dice. Everybody's full up."  (pp. 75-76) [***]

             As Kroner often said, eternal vigilance was the price of efficiency. And the machines tirelessly riffled through their decks again and again and again in search of foot draggers, free riders, and misfits. […] ¶ [Paul to Bud] "You should be in design."

            "Got no aptitude for it," said Bud. "Tests proved that." ¶ That would be on his ill-fated card, too. All his aptitude-test grades were on it — irrevocably, immutable, and the card knew best. "But you do design," said Paul." […] ¶ But the tests says no," said Bud. ¶ "So the machines say no," said Katharine. ¶ So that's that," said Bud. [* * *]

            "Uh-huh," said Paul, looking at the familiar graph with distaste. It was a so-called Achievement and Aptitude Profile, and every college graduate got one along with his sheepskin. And the sheepskin was nothing and the graph was everything. (pp. 76-77)

Chapter 9

            [James J. Lasher speaking of back when he was a Protestant minister taking to his congregation or one or more congregants:] "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 [engineering/managerial elites] 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 about zero. […] 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. […] Maybe the actual jobs weren't taken from the people, but the sense of participation, the sense of importance was. […] as far back as World War II,] Even then there was a lot of talk about know-how winning the war of production — know-how, not the people, not the mediocre people running most of the machines. And the hell of it was that it was pretty much true." (p. 92)

            "Strange business," said Lasher. "This crusading spirit of the managers and engineers, the idea of designing and manufacturing and distributing being sort of a holy war: all that folklore was cooked up by public relations and advertising men to make big business popular in the old days, which it certainly wasn't in the beginning. Now, the engineers and managers believe with all their hearts the glorious things their forebears hired people to say about them. Yesterday's snow job become today's sermon." (p. 93)

            [Lasher:] "Things, gentlemen, are ripe for a phony Messiah, and when he comes, it's sure to be a bloody business. […] At the bottom of it will be a promise of regaining the feeling of participation, the feeling of being needed of earth — hell, dignity. The police are bright enough to look for people like that, and lock them up under the antisabotage laws. But sooner or later someone's going to keep out of sight long enough to organize a following." [***]

                        "I think it's a grave mistake to put on public record everyone's I.Q. […] the first thing the revolutionaries would want to do is knock off everybody with an I.Q. over 110, say." ¶ "Then he 100's would go after the 110's, the 90's after the 100's and so on," said [Ed] Finnerty [friend of Paul].

                        "Maybe. Something like that. Things are certainly set up for a class war based on conveniently established lines of demarcation. [….] The criterion of brains is better than the one of money, but — he [Lasher] held his thumb and forefinger about a sixteenth of an inch apart — about that much better."

                        "It's about as rigid a hierarchy as you can get, " said Finnerty. "How's someone going to up his I.Q.?"

                        "Exactly," said Lasher. "And it's built on more than just brain power — it's built on special kinds of brain power. Not only must a person be bright, he must be bright in certain approved, useful directions: basically, management or engineering." (pp. 93-95).

 Chapter 11 (in the cavern with EPICAC XIV)
            EPICAC XIV […] was already at work, deciding […] how many everything America and her customers could have and how much they would cost. And it was EPICAC XIV who would decide […] how many engineers and managers and research men and civil servants, and of what skills would be needed in order to deliver the goods; and what I.Q. and aptitude levels would separate the useful men from the useless ones […]. (p. 117)


Chapter 14

            [Paul Proteus, Doctor of Science, engineer and manager, thinking of what would later be called "dropping out":] Again uneasiness crept up on him, the fear that there was far too little of him to get along anywhere outside the system […]. He might go into some small business […]. But he would still be caught in the mesh of the economy and its concomitant hierarchy. The machines wouldn't let him into that business, anyway, and even if they would, there'd be no less nonsense and posturing. […]. (pp. 143-44).

             Farming — now there was a magic word. [… But] There were no longer farmers but only agricultural engineers. (p. 144)

Chapter 15

[Paul Proteus and the realtor, Dr. Pond, at the Gottwald farm, farmed by Mr. Haycox, son of former owner]

            "Doctor Proteus — this is Mr. Haycox."

            "How are you?" said Paul.

            "Do," said Mr. Haycox. "What kind of doctor?"

            "Doctor of Science," said Paul.

            Mr. Haycox seemed annoyed and disappointed. "Don't call that kind a doctor at all. Three kinds of doctors: dentists, vets, and physicians. You one of those?"

            "No. Sorry."

            "Then you ain't a doctor."

            "He is a doctor," said Doctor Pond earnestly, "He knows how to keep machines healthy." He was trying to build up the importance of graduate degrees in the mind of this clod.

            "Mechanic," said Mr. Haycox. […]

            [Pond:] "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 smoothly."

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

            "Doctor Pond smiled modestly. "I spent seven years at the Cornell Graduate School of Realty to qualify for a Doctor of Realty degree and get this job. [***] I think I can say […] 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." [***]

            [Pond:] "Doctor Proteus is buying the farm."

            [Haycox:] "My farm?" [***]

            "The Gottwald estate's farm," said Doctor Pond.

            "That a man?" [***] "Well, I'm a man. As far as men go, this here is my farm more'n it's anybody else's. I'm the only man who ever cared about it, ever did anything about it."

            [Paul Proteus will keep Haycox on.] (pp. 150-52)


Chapter 18

[Paul Proteus to his wife:] "In order to get what we've got, Anita, we have, in effect, traded these people [the under-schooled and un- or under-employed] out of what was the most important thing on earth to them — the feeling of being needed and useful, the foundation of self-respect." (p. 169) * * *

            "That's just it: things haven't always been that way. It's new, and it's people like us who've brought it about. Hell, everybody used to have some personal skill or willingness to work on 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." (p. 177)


 Chapter 19

            Paul reflected that Baer [chief engineer of Eastern Division] was possibly the most just, reasonable, and candid person he'd ever known — remarkably machine-like in that the only problems he interested himself in were that brought to him, and in that he went to work on all problems with equal energy and interest, insensitive to quality and scale. (p. 187)


Chapter 20

[Homer Bigley, trimming hair of Shah and delivering a monolog in English the Shah can't understand]: "Now they say barbering isn't a profession, but you take the other professions that got too big for their breeches since the Middle Ages and look down on barbering. You take medicine, you take the law. Machinery.

            "Doctor doesn't use his head and education to figure out what's the matter with you. Machines go over you — measure this, measure that. Then he picks out the right miracle stuff, and the only reason he does is on account of the machines time him that's what to do. And the lawyers! […]

            "Used to be sort of high and mighty, sort of priests those doctors and lawyers and all, but they're beginning to look more and more like mechanics. Dentists are holding up pretty good though. They're the exception that proves the rule, I say. And barbering — one of the oldest professions on earth, incidentally — has held up better than all the rest. Machines separated the men from the boys, you might say. (pp. 195-96) * * *

            "These kids in the Army now, that's just a place to keep 'em off the streets and out of trouble because there isn't anything else to do with them. And the only chance they'll ever get to be anybody is if there's a war. That's the only chance in the world they got of showing anybody they lived and died […].

            "Used to be there was a lot of damn fool things a dumb bastard could do to be great, but the machines fixed that. […]

            "Now the machines take all the dangerous jobs, and the dumb bastards just get tucked away in big bunch of prefabs […] or in barracks, and there's nothing for them to do […]. Or maybe hope — but they don't say so out loud because the last one was so terrible — for another war. Course there isn't going to be another one.

            "And, oh, I guess machines have made things a lot better. [… Though] It does seem like the machines took all the good jobs […]. And I guess I'm just about the end of a race, standing here on my own two feel" (p. 198)

[Next section of the monolog, Bigley tells how a barber so feared the invention of a barber machine that he dreamed about it and ended up inventing one himself: p. 199.]


Chapter 21

[Propaganda play at "The Meadows" retreat for rising engineers and managers, and executives. "John Averageman":] "Well, sir, it hurts a man a lot to be forgotten. You know — to have the fellers in charge, the engineers and managers, just sort of look right through him […]." (p. 205)

            "The play was virtually the same play that had begun every Meadows session […]. Twenty years ago, Paul's father had brought him up here, and the play's message had been the same: that the common man wasn't nearly as grateful as he should be for what the engineers and managers had given him, and that the radicals were to cause of the ingratitude" (p. 211).


Chapter 22

[On Dr. Francis Eldgrin Gelhorne: Successor to George Proteus, hence, the second National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director (183). For all practical purposes, the human ruler of the US economy, hence, of the US:]

            When war became certain and the largest corporations were looking about for new manufacturing facilities, Gelhorne had delivered his prosperous community of plants to General Steel, and became an officer of that corporation. The rule-of-thumb familiarity he had with many different industries […] had been broader than that of any executives General Steel had […], and Gelhorne was soon spending all his time at the side of the corporation's war-rattled president.

            There he'd come to the attention of Paul's father […], and Paul's father had made Gelhorne his general executive manager when the whole economy had been made one flesh. When Paul's father died, Gelhorne had taken over.

            It could never happen again. The machines would never stand for it. (pp. 218-19)

[Gelhorne to Paul:] "Show me a specialist, and I'll show you a man who'd so scared he's dug a hole for himself to hide in. […] 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 the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind." (p. 219)


Chapter 24

[Halyard of State Department with a first-time hooker he's almost completed procuring for the Shah:]

            "Anyway," said the girl, my husband's book was rejected by the Council."

            "Badly written," said Halyard primly. […]

            "Beautifully written," she said patiently. "But it was twenty-seven pages longer than the maximum length; its readability quotient was 26.3, and —"

            "No [book] club will touch anything with an R.Q. above 17," explained Halyard.

            "And," the girl continued, "it had an antimachine theme." [***]

            "He sounds very maladjusted," said Halyard [… who recommends psychotherapy ***].

            "[…] 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 […]. That was the trouble with his book. It raised those questions, and was rejected. So he was ordered into public relations duty [… which he refused, cutting him off from his gov't supports].

            "I was wandering around town, wondering what on earth a girl could do these days to make a few dollars. There aren't many things."

            [Halyard:] "This husband of yours, he'd rather have his wife a — Rather have her —" Halyard cleared his throat — "than go into public relations?"

            "I'm proud to say, said, the girl, "that he's one of the few men on earth with a little self-respect left." {NOTE: Vonnegut was a PR flack for General Electric for a bit, after he returned from World War II. Erlich definitely appreciates the joke since for a summer job he looked in at a PR operation and had to leave because he was starting to gag; he took a job doing hospital work and wasn't queasy there.}


Chapter 26

[Paul Proteus on an "All automatic" train:] […] Paul wondered at what thorough believers in mechanization most Americans were, even when their lives had been badly damaged by mechanization. The [former train] conductor's plaint, like the lament of so many wasn't that it was unjust to take jobs from men to give them to machines, but that the machines didn't do nearly as many human things as good designers could have made them do. (p. 241)

 [Army guys on train observed by Paul Proteus with Paul's thoughts, or the Narrator's:]

            Paul shook his head slightly as he listened to the sergeant's absurd tale [of a generator "moonlight requisitioned" (i.e., stolen) and put to use powering up the automated weaponry that butchered attackers]. That, then, was the war he had been so eager to get into at one time, the opportunity for basic, hot-tempered, hard-muscled heroism he regretted having missed. There was plenty of death, plenty of pain […]. But men had been called upon chiefly to endure by the side of the machines, the terrible engines that fought with their own kind for the right to gorge themselves on men. […]

            "Gosh! Sarge, how come you never went after a commission?"

            "Me go back to college at my age? […] Getting' that B.S. was enough for me. Two more years and an M.A. for a pair of lousy gold bars [of a U.S. Army second lieutenant]? Naaaaaah!" (pp. 242-43)

[Paul getting off train at Ilium station and seeing in a standard-satiric list, shortened here:] […] The automatic ticket vendor, the automatic [chewing] gum vendor, the automatic book vendor, […] the automatic Coke vendor […]. (p. 245)]


 Chapter 27

[Paul — having quit his job/been fired (plot stuff), watching day-time TV: the standard show. Kid to mom on why he was in a fight:]

            […] but he said my I.Q. was 59, Ma! […] And he said Pop was a 53." [… And] It's true. I went down to the police station and looked it up!  […] He turned his back, and his voice was a bitter whisper: "And you with a 47, Ma. A 47." [***]

            "Jimmy, I.Q. isn't everything. Some of the unhappiest people in the world are the smartest one."

            Since the start of his week of idleness at home Paul had learned that this, with variations, was the basic problem situation in afternoon dramas, with diseases and injuries of the optic nerve and locomotor apparatus a close second. […]

            "You mean — a plain fellow like me […] folks like us, Ma, you mean we're as good as, as, as, well, Doctor Gorson, the Worlds Manager?"

            "Doctor Gorson, with his 169 I.Q. Doctor Gorson, with his PhD. [sic on no periods], D.Sc., and his Ph. And D. […] Him?" […] Jimmy […], have you seen the lines in his face? He's carryin' the world around on his shoulders, Jimmy That's what a high I.Q. got him […]. Do you know how old he is? […] He's ten years younger than your Pa, Jimmy. That's what brains got him." (p. 248)


 Chapter 28

[Thoughts of, "Doctor Harold Roseberry, PE-002," head coach of Cornell U football, which has paid for several new campus buildings] and four new professorial chairs: The Philosophy of Creative Engineering, Creative Engineering History, Creative Public Relations for Engineers, and Creative Engineering and the Captive Consumer. (pp. 258-59)

 [Informal competition between Roseberry and one of the Elite (quite drunk) from the Meadows, for the soul and abilities of Buck Young, an IM football champion for Delta Upsilon, being offered $35K a year to play for Cornell — or he can continue his studies: university athletes are pro athletes, not students.]

            [Identifying himself:] "Doctor, Doctor, mind you, Edmond L. Harrison of the Ithaca works. […] He appealed to Buck, whose exit [from the campus bar of this scene]. Doctor Roseberry represents one road, and I the other. I am you, if you continue on your present course [of studying for a degree], five years from now. […] If you are good," he said, "and if you are thoughtful, a fractured pelvis on the gridiron will pain you less than a life of engineering and management. In that life, believe me, the thoughtful, the sensitive, those who can recognize the ridiculous, die a thousand deaths." […]

            "The best man I knew at the Meadows —"

            "The Meadows?" said Buck in awe."

            "The Meadows," said Harrison, "where men at the head of the procession of civilization demonstrate in private [with their competition at camp games] that they are ten-year-olds at heart, that they haven't the vaguest notion of what they're doing to the world."

            "They're opening new doors at the head of the procession!" said Buck hotly, shocked by the near-sabotage talk. […]"

            "Slamming doors in everybody's face," said Harrison. "That's what they're doing." (pp. 264-65)

 [Harrison talks of quitting and leaving civilization.]

            "And do what?" said Buck, baffled.

            "Do?" said Harrison. "Do?" That's just it, my boy. All the doors have been closed. There's nothing to do but find a womb suitable for an adult, and crawl into it. One without machines would suit me particularly."

            "What have you got against machines?" said Buck.

            "They're slaves."

            "Well, what the heck, said Buck. "I mean, they aren't people. They don't suffer. They don't mind working."

            "No. But they compete with people."

            "That's a pretty good thing, isn't it — considering what a sloppy job most people do of anything?"

            "Anybody that competes with slaves becomes a slave," said Harrison thickly, and he left. (p. 266)


 Chapter 29

[Paul Proteus, having been taken captive by the revolutionaries of The Ghost Shirt Society, whose goal is stated by Ed Finnerty, and the interview with/initial indoctrination of the drugged Paul continues:]

            "That the world should be restored to the people." […]

            "You're going to help" [as figure-head and/or Messiah-figure]. […]

            "What's a ghost shirt?" murmured Paul […].

            "Toward the end of the nineteenth century," said Lasher [movement leader, former Christian minister, quite realistic and pragmatic fanatic], a new religious movement swept the Indians in this country, Doctor."

            "The Ghost Dance, Paul," said Finnerty.

            "The white man had broken promise after promise to the Indians, killed off most of the game, taken most of the Indians' land, and handed the Indians bad beatings every time they offered any resistance," said Lasher. […]. […] the Indians found out that all the things they used to take pride in doing […] all the ways […] they used to justify their existence — they found all those things were going or gone. […]"

            "[…] Indian ways in a white man's world were irrelevant. […] They only thing they could do in the changed world was to become second-rate white men or wards of the white men."

            "Or they could make one last fight for the old values," said Finnerty with relish.

            "And the Ghost Dance religion," said Lasher, "was the last, desperate defense of the old values." [***]

            "They were going to ride into battle one last time," said Lasher, "in magic shirts that white men's bullets couldn't go through." (pp. 272-73)

            "Don't you see, Doctor [Proteus]" said Lasher. "The machines are to practically everybody what the white men were to the Indians. […] People have no choice but to become second-rate machines themselves or wards of the machines." [***]

            "[…] If a Messiah shows up now [Lasher says] with a good, solid, startling message, and if he keeps out of the hands of the police, he can set off a revolution — maybe one big enough to take the world away from machines, Doctor, and give it back to the people." ([And Paul is their choice.] pp. 274-75)


Chapter 30

[On their inability to recruit a character seen earlier, Alfy Tucci, who] "[…] never joined anything […]." […]

            Lasher smiled sadly. "The great American individual," he said. "Thinks he's the embodiment of liberal thought throughout the ages. Stand 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." (pp. 281-82)

 [Plan for the Revolution and difference from our times: those social organizations (Kiwanis, Elks, General Federation of Women's Clubs, Order of the Eastern Star — although KV doesn't note the women's groups) vs. our "Bowling Alone"]

            "A special meeting of every chapter of every big social organization in the country, outside of the engineers' and managers', will have been called. At the meetings, our people, big men in the organizations, will tell the members that all over the country men are marching through the streets on their way to wreck the automatic factories and give America back to the people. Then they put on their ghost shirts and lead whoever will follow, starting with a few more of our people planted around." […]

            "How many do you suppose will follow?" said Paul.

            "As many people as are bored to death or sick of things the way they are," said Lasher. […]

            "And then what?" said Paul.

            "And then we get back to basic values, basic virtues!" said Finnerty. Men doing men's work, women doing women's work. People doing people's thinking."

                        [Which leads to a discussion of EPICAC.] (pp. 282-83).


Chapter 31 [Paul captured by police]

            When the police had identified Paul, they had been embarrassed by his I.Q., and his rank in the criminal hierarchy: the archcriminal, the would-be king of the saboteurs. There was no comparable rank in the Ilium police force, and the police had, out of humbleness and lifelong indoctrination, sent for inquisitors with adequate classification numbers and I.Q.'s. (p. 289)


Chapter 32 [Paul's testimony at his trial, while hooked up to a lie detector with a very public response indicator.]

            "The witness will please tell what he considers to be a lie," said the judge.

            "Every new piece of scientific knowledge is a good thing for humanity," said Paul. […]

            "Now a truth," said the judge.

            "The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings," said Paul, "not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems." (p. 297, Erlich's emphasis of a line important for Vonnegut)

 [Prosecutor says, with some truth according to the lie detector on Paul's responses, that Paul's real motivation for leading the rebellion was hatred of his father.] "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury and the television audience: I submit that this man before you is a little more than a spiteful boy, to whom this great land of ours […] has become a symbol of his father! A father whom, subconsciously, he would have liked to destroy. […] Call it Oedipus complex, if you will. He's a grown man now, and I call it treason!" (p. 298)

            [Paul responds with an important argument against not just 1950s Freudian psychologizing but the much older and more deeply-rooted Roman/Christian over-emphasis on people's motives.]

                        "But, even if there weren't this unpleasant business between me and the memory of my father, I think I would believe in the arguments against the lawlessness of the machines. […] What hate does, I think, is to make me not only believe, but want to do something about the system. […]

            "I suspect that all people are motivated by something pretty sordid, and I guess the clinical data bears me out on that. Sordid things, for the most part, are what make human beings, my father included, move. That's what it is to be human […].

            "What the prosecutor has just done is to prove what everything about this world we've made for ourselves seems determined to prove, what the Ghost Shirt Society is determined to disprove; that I'm no good; you're no good, that we're no good because we're human." (p. 299)


Chapter 33

[Ewing J. Halyard of the US State Department hadn't passed the PE requirement for his Cornell Bachelor's degree. He's given his makeup tests by Harold Roseberry, whom he has offended.]

            Wondering at the mechanics of being a human, mechanics far beyond he poor leverage of free will, Mr. Halyard found himself representing the fact of no rank as plainly as Doctor Halyard had once represented a great deal of rank. […]

            When Halyard had recovered [from his make-up PE tests, as administered by Dr. Coach Roseberry], and changed […] into street clothes, he had seen in the mirror, not a brilliantly fashionable cosmopolite, but an old, overdressed fool. Off had come the boutonniere, the contrasting waistcoat, the colored shirt. Accessory by accessory, garment by ferment, he'd stripped away the symbols of the discredited diplomat. Now he was, spiritually and sartorially, whites, grays, and blacks. […]

            […] The State Department's personnel machines, automatically, with a respect for law and order never achieved by human beings, had started fraud proceeding against him, since he had never been entitled to his Ph.D., his classification numbers, or, more to the point, to his pay check. (pp. 300-301)

 In the limo, with Halyard trying to get through the crowds of the revolt. Halyard to driver:]

            "I don't know what's going on, and neither do you. Now drive to the police station, do you understand?" said Halyard.

            "You think you can order me around just because you've got a Ph.D. and I've got nothing but a B.S.?"

            "Do as he says," hissed Khashdrahr, placing the point of his knife in the back of the driver's neck again.

            The limousine moved down the littered, now-deserted streets toward the headquarters of Ilium's keepers of the peace.

            The street before the police station was snow-white, paved with bits of punctured pasteboard: the fifty-thousand-card deck with which the Ilium personnel and crime-prevention machines had played their tireless games — shuffling, dealing, off the bottom, off the top, out of the middle, palming, marking, reading, faster than the human eye could follow, controlling every card, and implacably protecting the interests of the house, always the house, any house. (p. 305)


Chapter 34 [The day after the Revolution; the authorities have surrounded Ilium and demanded the leaders of the Revolution, plus total surrender or face a siege for six months. The leaders here, a little drunk]

            "You know," said Paul at last, "things wouldn't have been so bad if they'd stayed the way they were when we first got here [to Ilium and the Ilium Works] Those were passable days, weren't they?" He and Finnerty were feeling a deep melancholy rapport now, sitting amid the smashed masterpieces, the brilliantly designed, beautifully made machines. A good part of their lives and skills had gone into making them, making what they'd helped to destroy in a few hours.

            "Things don't stay the way they are," said Finnerty. "It's too entertaining to try to change them. Remember the excitement of recording Rudy Hertz's movements, then trying to run automatic controls from the tape?"

            "It worked!" said Paul.

            "Damn right!"

            "And then putting lathe group three together," said Paul. "Those weren't our ideas of course."

            "No, but we got ideas of our own later on. Wonderful ideas," said Finnerty. "Happiest I ever was, I guess, Paul; so damn engrossed. I never looked up to notice anything else."

            "Most fascinating game there is, keeping things from staying the way they are."

            "If only it weren't for the people, the goddamned people," said Finnerty, "always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren't for them, earth would be an engineer's paradise."

            "Let's drink to that."

            They did. (pp. 312-13)

             "What became of the Indians?" said Paul. […] ¶ The original Ghost Shirt Society […]

            [Lasher:] They found out the shirts weren't bulletproof, and magic didn't bother the U.S. Cavalry at all."

            "So —?"

            "So they were killed or gave up trying to be good Indians […]."

            "And the Ghost Dance movement proved what?" said Paul.

            "That being a good Indian was as important as being a good white man — important enough to fight and die for, no matter what the odds. The fought against the same odds we fought against: a thousand to one, maybe, or a little more."

            Paul and Ed Finnerty looked at him incredulously.

            "You thought we were sure to lose?" said Paul huskily.

            "Certainly," said Lasher, looking at him as though Paul had said something idiotic.

            "But you've been talking all along as though it were almost a sure thing," said Paul.

            "Of course, Doctor," said Lasher patronizingly. "If we hadn't talked that way we wouldn't have had that one chance in a thousand. But I didn't let myself lose touch with reality."

            Lasher, Paul realized, was the only one who hadn't lost touch with reality. He, alone of the four leaders, seemed unshocked by the course of events […] even, inexplicably, at peace. […]

            Finnerty was covering his initial surprise at Lasher's statement, so perfect an apostle was he. […]

            Lasher was fully awake now […]. "It doesn't matter if we win or lose, Doctor [Proteus]. The important thing is that we tried. For the record, we tried!" […]

            "What record?" said Paul.

            Suddenly Lasher underwent a transformation. He showed a side of himself he had mentioned, but which Paul had found impossible to imagine.

            And with the transformation, the desk became a pulpit.

            "Revolutions aren't my main line of business," said Lasher, his voice deep and rolling. "I'm a minister, Doctor, remember? First and last, I'm an enemy of the Devil, a man of God!" (p. 314)


Chapter 35

            The brains of the Ghost Shirt Society were touring the strongpoints on the frontiers of their Utopia [in Ilium]. And everywhere they found the same things: abandoned posts, mounds of expended ammunition, and riddled machinery.

            The four had come to an exciting decision: during the six months of blockade threatened by the authorities, they would make the ruins a laboratory, a demonstration of how well and happily men could live with virtually no machines. They saw now the common man's wisdom in wrecking practically everything. (p. 316).

[Next scene: Characters we've seen before getting some remaining machines working again.]

(pp. 317-19)

 [The four Ghost Shirt leaders passing a liquor bottle, on their way to surrender; Lasher toasts:]

            "[…] — to the record."

            The bottle went around the group [to Finnerty and Prof. Ludwig von Neumann, former PoliSci instructor and the fourth leader, both toasting the record …]

            Paul took the bottle and studied Lasher for a moment […]. Lasher, the chief instigator of it all, was contented. A lifelong trafficker in symbols, he had created the revolution as a symbol, and was now welcoming the opportunity to die as one.

            And that left Paul. "To a better world," he started to say, but he cut the toast short, thinking of the people of Ilium, already eager to recreate the same old nightmare. He shrugged. "To the record," he said, and smashed the empty bottle on a rock.

            Von Neumann considered Paul and then the broken glass. "This isn't the end, you know," he said. "Nothing ever is, nothing ever will be — not even Judgment Day."

            "Hands up," said Lasher almost gaily. "Forward March [sic]." (p. 320, end of novel)

In case the embedded link doesn't work: Study Guide for Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Player Piano