Rereading Vonnegut’s first novel Player Piano which he patterned after the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We.” There comes a moment when the new engineers who are to replace all the workers who once oversaw the production line process with automated machines is described in vivid detail:
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 machinist, 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.1
Of course in those years computers as we know them had yet to be built, but Vonnegut had already begun to understand through readings of scientists that such processes would eventually replace humans for good. The sense of alienation, the abstraction of the essence of the worker removed from the living man, and then inserted into the machine as its permanent home: the sense that we are nothing but our physical and mental capacities: essence of the human as commoditized abstraction; something that can be taped, and replayed continuously like a ghost in the machine. Vonnegut shows how the elite become dehumanized denizens of their own competitive spirit and lust for power in a world of machines. This was a society where the elite were the intelligent scientists and engineers, a technocratic society where everyone else was forced to live in reservations named Homesteads. People who were not smart enough became mere slaves to the elite in an elaborate world of death. Vonnegut always did have a way of making the human element come to the fore in his satires. Excellent book. A dystopian nightmare world through which the main anti-hero observes the slow de-humanization of his personal and social life through work and leisure.
1. Vonnegut, Kurt (2010-07-01). Player Piano (Kurt Vonnegut Series) (Kindle Locations 194-207). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.