Saturday, November 9, 2013

Taking Jobs Away from Tape and Giving Them to Microchips

I just read Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano, originally published in 1952, because David F. Noble had recommended it strongly in his Forces of ProductionI've read several of Vonnegut's books over the years, and am still a fan of Slaughterhouse-Five, but I've always been ambivalent about most of his work.  Usually I enjoy it well enough as I'm reading it, and say to myself, Hey, I should read more of his books -- but as soon as I've finished a book I move on to other writers I like better.  Still, I have by now read most of his novels published through the 1980s or so.  Mother Night is his only other early book I still need to read; no hurry.

Player Piano was inspired by Vonnegut's time working in public relations for General Electric, when he was disturbed by the effects of automation on workers' jobs, whether they were rendered unemployed or merely de-skilled.  It's the story of Paul Proteus, the son of an industrialist, who is rising through the hierarchy as an engineer in a company based on General Electric.  It takes place in an unspecified period in 1952's future, when the United States has been though widespread domestic uprisings which led to centralized industrial planning, the sorting of all citizens according to aptitude and intelligence tests graded by "the machines," with some chosen for college training to join the elites, and most shuffled into the military to keep order.  The city of Ilium, where the novel is set, is divided by a bridge into the factory sector, and the other side where the lower orders stumble along.  (I'm not clear where the elites live.  It's apparently on a different side of the bridge, but doesn't seem to be the same as the proles' sector.)   Unemployment is high, but the unemployed get free goods, food, medical care and education (within the limits of their tested ability).  Not too surprisingly, this doesn't compensate for their having been cast off as useless, and there's considerable unrest among them.  It's the army's job to come in and suppress any rebelliousness.  Paul Proteus is uncomfortable in his elite place; he's sympathetic to workmen, machinists, and other (male) workers displaced by "the machines."  For some reason, he's the guy who's always dispatched across the bridge to get contraband in the bad neighborhood, which brings him into further contact with men he knew as a boy and respected for their ability, but who now can do little but drink, join fraternal organizations, and worry about the future of their sons.

I have mixed feelings about Player Piano.  I may have read it wrong because I was expecting something else, but I'm not sure what I expected.  I agree with Vonnegut's rejection of the myth of inevitable "progress" at the expense of the majority of people; I like his sympathetic pictures of men displaced from work they valued and thought valuable to their society.  But much of the book sits badly with me.  I think Vonnegut sentimentalizes the past, though he also mocks Proteus's brief craze of reading romantic pulp fiction about strong manly men who stand on their own two feet, self-sufficient and independent, and his fantasies about becoming a yeoman farmer on the frontier, with his wife Anita at his side.

But some things rub me really wrong.  Stuff like this (page numbers from the Library of America edition):
The great tradition of the American rifleman survived only symbolically, in volleys fired into the skies over the dead in thousands of military cemeteries [230].
Oh boo hoo hoo: the American rifleman, ethnic cleanser of the plains, was put out of work!  Of course the development of firearms itself also depersonalized war, if that's the word for it: you didn't have to see the whites of your opponent's eyes.  Soldiers no longer slit the enemy's throat up close and personal, or gut them with stabbing weapons.  I recall an article on the US air war in Vietnam, published around 1970, which lamented that Americans weren't any good at person-to-person combat such as biting out an opponent's throat with their teeth, unlike the noble Vietnamese guerrillas.  This is a damned if you do / damned if you don't situation, I realize, but that's because it dodges the issue of whether killing strangers en masse is justifiable in the first place.  I know that Vonnegut was a disillusioned World War II veteran, which he later expressed full-blown in Slaughterhouse-Five; maybe he hadn't sorted out his attitude to war when he wrote Player Piano.

Or again,
That much of a fine old American military tradition, Paul supposed, would always be alive -- send me where the tail is [231].
This line is at least partly sarcastic, I suppose, but there's tail everywhere: soldiers know how to look for it, and American armies have 'traditionally' insisted on sexual service from the women and boys of the countries they invaded.  In anthropologist Laurel Kendall's account of the Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman (Hawai'i, 1988), the title informant recalls how she preferred the Communists to the American soldiers during the Korean Civil War (1950-1953), because the former weren't always demanding women like the latter were.  Separate, segregated bars and brothels were maintained in South Korea for black and white soldiers.*  David Ellis writes in his memoir (on my mind because I just read it) about similar arrangements for American soldiers in France.  American soldiers seem to be notorious for this, and it's a worldwide pattern, "a fine old American military tradition" if you will, of building an infrastructure of sexual service (or "comfort") for the troops.  "The tail" is procured for them, no matter where they go.

Speaking of fine old traditions, there's a lot of male anxiety in Player Piano, a familiar theme in 1950s fiction by male authors. Paul's wife Anita is a typical 1950s "bitch goddess," though not a femme fatale.  "Anita had successfully combined the weapons of sex, taste, and an aura of masculine competence," Vonnegut says early in the novel (35).  In the end she turns out to be one of Player Piano's bad guys, though I think Vonnegut was trying to empathize with her somewhat.  We're told that she comes from a low-status family, not bright enough to go to college, so she has to attach herself to a successful elite man in order to have the standard of living she wants.

Which brings up something that probably wouldn't have been noticed by most critics until feminist criticism arose in the 1970s.  The novel implies that women could, in principle, score high on the IQ tests and go to college themselves -- but there are no women in the book who've done so.  The engineers are men, and women are secretaries or wives.  Engineering is still a male-dominated field, to put it gently, as it was in the Fifties, but it seems like a failure of imagination that Vonnegut didn't think to put in a few token women elites.  Probably his editors and publisher would have objected had he done so, but even the Noble Engineer Heinlein was doing better than that in his science fiction in the same period: he took for granted that women were intellectually capable, even if he usually had them quit work when they married and had kids.  In this respect, Vonnegut is more like his fellow technophobe Ray Bradbury.  I don't remember that his women characters became any better in his later work either.  So Player Piano is in this and other respects a rather typical masculinist outcry of its day, against the emasculating effects of modern society, with women seen as collaborators with the System.

The Library of America edition includes in the same volume with Player Piano a later essay of Vonnegut's in which he complains that after the publication of Player Piano he was typecast as a science fiction writer, which really honked him off.
I supposed that I was writing a novel about life, about things, I could not avoid seeing and hearing in Schenectady, a very real town, awkwardly set in the gruesome now. [Except that it’s not; it’s set in a gruesome near future. -- DM] I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled “science fiction” ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.

The way a person gets into this drawer, apparently, is to notice technology. [Writing about the future helps, too. -- DM] The feeling persists that no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works, just as no gentleman wears a brown suit in the city … And our most impressive critics have commonly been such English majors, and they are squeamish about technology to this very day. So it is natural for them to despise science fiction [781].
Yeah, it's a drag being pigeonholed, but I can't sympathize too far with Vonnegut's soreheadness, even when I remember that the literary scene looked a lot different in 1952.  I recently read Starboard Wine, Samuel R. Delany's second collection of science fiction criticism, originally published in 1984 but reissued by Wesleyan University Press in 2012, and while he didn't have much if anything to say about Vonnegut there, a lot of what he said is relevant to Vonnegut's complaint.  Delany argued that science fiction is in many respects a way of reading, and that if one reads a science fiction story as if it were "mundane fiction", one will be hopelessly confused.

Part of my reaction to Player Piano might have been that I was expecting mundane fiction and got sf instead; it took me a few chapters to figure out what kind of story I was reading.  Not because of technology, but because of its setting in time: it takes place in a recognizably post-WWII America, but how "post" is it?  Contrary to Vonnegut's protestations, he was not writing about the present (except insofar as any writer, including sf and fantasy and historical fiction writers, is writing about the present) and the technology of 1952: the technology he described in Player Piano was several steps beyond what existed when he wrote the book, or now.  (One amusing motif is machines that "talk" to users with pre-recorded tapes: Vonnegut didn't foresee that audiotape would be rendered obsolete by microchips.)  For all that, there's nothing in the story that indicates Vonnegut knew "how a refrigerator works" either.  I don't agree that science fiction involves merely noticing technology: it uses technology in specific ways, ways which Vonnegut uses in Player Piano.  As Delany puts it, "How would the world of the story have to be different from our world in order for this to occur?"

Delany also claimed in Starboard Wine that until about the end of World War II, most science fiction was set in the far future.  After the war, more and more was set in the near future.  In this respect too, Player Piano would be fairly typical science fiction of its time.  No dates are given, but the story clearly takes place some years after 1952, because Vonnegut invented a recent history of upheavals and political changes that would have had to happen after 1952. The story isn't Where We Are in 1952, it's Where We Are Going If Things Don't Change.  Since Vonnegut went on to write more fiction using science fiction conventions, such as The Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse-Five and numerous short stories, his objections to having his writings classified as sf seem unreasonable to me.

Player Piano has its share of surprises, especially the ending (which I won't spoil here).  I can see why David F. Noble liked it, and made much of it in Forces of Production.  But it didn't do much for me.

*I first read about this in Katherine H. S. Moon's Sex between Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations (Columbia, 1997), but there's a big literature on the subject.  And here's an interesting recent article which shows that American sailors are still on the trail of "tail" worldwide.