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Player Piano

Written by: Kurt Vonnegut
Narrated by: Christian Rummel
Length: 11 hrs and 31 mins
4 out of 5 stars (15 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Kurt Vonnegut's first novel spins the chilling tale of engineer Paul Proteus, who must find a way to live in a world dominated by a supercomputer and run completely by machines. Paul's rebellion is vintage Vonnegut – wildly funny, deadly serious, and terrifyingly close to reality.

As an added bonus, when you purchase our Audible Modern Vanguard production of Kurt Vonnegut's book, you'll also receive an exclusive Jim Atlas interview. This interview – where James Atlas interviews Gay Talese about the life and work of Kurt Vonnegut – begins as soon as the audiobook ends.

©1980 Kurt Vonnegut (P)2008 Audible, Inc.

What the critics say

"One of the best living American writers." (Graham Greene)
"Mr. Vonnegut is a sharp-eyed satirist." ( The New York Times)

What listeners say about Player Piano

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Book was full of "meh"

This book was neither good nor bad. Just "meh". The story dragged for some parts, especially the beginning, and it didn't get interesting until the end when all hell broke loose. I'd recommend this as an introduction to Vonnegut, but I wouldn't recommend it as one of his better works.

1 person found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars

Narration stilted and unnatural

Great book made unbearable (to me) by narration that almost sounds as if it’s being done by a none-too-advanced AI

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  • R.A.
  • 2019-06-07

A Genuine 5-Stars

THE SHORT:

If you know (and enjoy) Vonnegut — there’s no reason to hesitate on this one. Without a doubt, it is amongst his best work.

If you don’t yet know Vonnegut, this is *not* a comprehensive introduction to his style and range, but it exemplifies the thoughtful social commentary that is always present in his work. A good place to start, but if ever you don’t like it, I wouldn’t dismiss him without also checking out Slaughterhouse 5, Breakfast of Champions and Sirens of Titan.


THE LONG:
__. __
__THE STORY__
The humour in Player Piano is much drier and more attenuated than other, more fantastical, Vonnegut novels; perhaps because it mostly plays on very on-point social commentary. The story itself is very engaging: Vonnegut paints the picture of a society using ~3 parallel, non-intersecting, threads. Unlike many other novels where such narrative structure is used as a gimmick to create artificial suspense (ie a hook to keep you reading that would not work if you were to re-read the novel), in Player Piano, Vonnegut has used it so deftly that, even though the characters in the various parts have nothing to do with one another, there is no sense of a split story line: all of them carry the central theme forward, seamlessly.

The near-future world that Vonnegut imagined resembles ours so closely that his prescience alone makes the story gripping, and his ability to articulate the discomforts accompanying a technocratic world gives the whole thing a eerie prophetic feeling. I just wish he had been a bit more clear in his final statement: on a first listening, there is not a clear conclusion to the “discussion” he has with the reader, throughout the story.

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__The Narration__

In a word: perfect. I have never heard anything else read by Christian Rummel, and I think he is the first or second narrator out of ~450 audiobooks, for whom I’d considered buying other books simply on account of his talent.

I don’t recall seeing anything about Rummel having won an award for this novel, but I don’t know how that could possibly be the case. Not only does he distinguish characters effectively, without blowing the dynamic range, he absolutely nails several characters, bringing them to life.

I’m not one to be excessively enthusiastic: there’s nothing worse than a huge endorsement to get your expectations up so that the actual product can’t possibly live up to them, but if you’re able to give Rummel a fair listening, I think you’ll agree that his performance is spectacular: a few of the characters are so spot-on, that I wondered if he had met Vonnegut. He definitely transformed the book for me, as I would not have been able to imagine such perfectly matched voicing for those characters. Of course, not *every* character has something special that you wouldn’t get with another narrator, but there’s no doubt he was the perfect choice for this book.

He also carries off some Vonnegut-esque sound effects (onomatopoeic machine noises) to great effect: capturing the playful sarcasm and irony that colours so much of Vonnegut’s writing.

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__OVERALL__

Highly recommended. A book I will listen to again, without a doubt - which is ultimately the highest praise I can give any book :)

If you found this review helpful in deciding whether or not to give this book a chance, please let me know by clicking the button below, so that I can continue to provide helpful reviews (or improve them!). Happy listening!


6 people found this helpful

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  • Mary
  • 2018-08-04

the very BEST AUTHOR OF the 1900's

if you haven't read Vonnegut, you have missed out on valuable wit and human pespective.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Wesley
  • 2020-05-03

mostly good

narrator is very talented, but takes a little getting used to. story dates itself in some unpleasant ways, and doesn't keep the same place as some of Vonnegut's other works. overall worth the listen (until the interview at the end, which is completely cringe-worthy).

1 person found this helpful

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  • Joe Kraus
  • 2019-11-04

A Glimpse at Vonnegut Making Himself into Vonnegut

I’ve thought about Vonnegut a lot over the last 3-5 years, and I’ve re-read most of what I’d once read multiple times in high school and home from college. His work was my intellectual comfort food and then, all at once, I’d decided I was beyond him.

The big insight that launched my re-interest came when I realized the extent to which we can trace his coming to terms with the trauma of his war-time experiences, culminating in Slaughterhouse-Five. I found real power in the early novels as we watch him inching ever closer to confronting what it meant to witness what the Allies did to the Germans at Dresden, a story more ironic and horrible than anything he could ever invent himself.

For me, Vonnegut gets really good with Mother Night, his third novel, though we can see some interesting things happening in Sirens of Titan, his second. This one is his first, and, coming back to it, I see some glimmers. But, by comparison with what was coming just a couple years later, this is close to a failure.

Among other things, this is badly plotted. Our hero, Paul Proteus, does have a fascinating experience. Unable, in Vonnegut fashion, to share faith with either of the sides in conflict – he’s born and trained to belong to the engineering elite, but he’s temperamentally unable to join them or the active resistance – he eventually gets fired in order to be sent as an undercover agent of the rebels. Everyone assumes he’s someone he is not. (It’s clumsy here, but Vonnegut does it elegantly in Mother Night.)

That section should be the heart of this novel. Instead, it comes something like two-thirds of the way through with the earlier parts all an extended comic sci-fi/dystopia. It’s apprentice work for the excellence that would follow, but at first it’s spread out too slowly and then it’s rushed. In retrospect, I think a good editor could have saved it, but first he or she would have had to know the voice and style Vonnegut would later develop.

This does interest me, though, for the glimpses we see of what I’ll call the proto-revelations of trauma. This is still loosely in the “Harrison Bergeron” phase where, in a kind of libertarianism, Vonnegut seemed to fear the power of unbridled government more than, as he eventually settled into, the unbridled power of late capitalism. In this moment, we see a poignant yearning for some of what the war made possible. Multiple characters, no more ironic than others, seem nostalgic for the shared purpose of battle.

We do get an early sense of the pointlessness of war. One character recounts winning a major medal because, moments after a Nazi attack, he got a generator working again and electrocuted a thousand Germans who’d managed to make their way to an electric fence that was temporarily disabled. That is, we get an acknowledgement that war is pointless and anti-human, but that doesn’t entirely overwhelm the sense that the narrative of war has a power to bring humans together.

There’s a send-up of corporate life that involves inventing a series of pointless Blue/Green/White teams with strong patriotic self-definitions – that is, there’s a sense of the phoniness of what Vonnegut will call Granfalloons in Cat’s Cradle – but he doesn’t seem all the way able to dismiss the “foma” of patriotism.

In other words, I see a residue of his claiming that what he endured had some purpose to it. That residue is eroding – I think it may be mostly gone by Sirens of Titan – but this marks a fascinating glimpse at the man Vonnegut was before he made himself into the Vonnegut we know.

Don’t bother with this one unless you’ve done the other early ones first, but it’s valuable because of what it shows of an artist slowly forcing himself to become himself.

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  • pierrev
  • 2019-08-21

Not his best but not the worst

the middle was a little slow for me and I had a hard time getting through it but loved the way it finished

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  • Dubi
  • 2018-09-30

The Future Is Here

There is a book or a documentary (there may be more than one) that compares visions of the future as presented in the mid-20th century, particularly at the 1939 New York World's Fair ("The World of Tomorrow"), and shows just how wrong they were -- often comically. Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano, by contrast, holds up well 66 years into the future, its vision having by and large come true in many ways, sometimes chillingly.

Based on his own experiences working for General Electric in the late 1940s, Player Piano imagines a future in which people are replaced by machines controlled by computers and the world is run by feckless managers and engineers. In the 1950s they called it automation -- we now call it robotics. People losing their jobs to robots is a reality that is part of our current political and economic discourse; unchecked corporate power is another hot button issue; and our 1% class structure is a near corollary to Player Piano's world where management lives north of the river in Ilium and the unemployed masses live to its south, the twain rarely meeting.

The populist anti-establishment screeds sprinkled throughout Player Piano cut across today's ideologies. The issues of corporate influence and the economic elite certainly echo liberal thought, but job loss to robotics and a Luddite nostalgia for a simpler past are hallmarks of conservatism. The nature of the working class left behind by automation also cuts across ideological lines -- demographically, they resemble red state conservatives, but their plight (especially how they're treated by the elite) resembles blue state liberal views.

Vonnegut's Luddite attitude toward technology is one example where he got it completely wrong. Those losing jobs to robotics may lament their unemployment, but no one is unplugging their WiFi or central air conditioners. And there are many new careers in technology than KV imagined. He mocks the corporate justification for automation -- improving people's lives -- but in today's world, few want society to go off-grid, they just want to keep their jobs or get new ones. On the other hand, he totally nails the manipulation of the populace via weapons of mass distraction, as did Huxley in Brave New World (which Vonnegut admits to happily ripping off).

This being his first novel, Vonnegut adhered closely to traditional literary structures. There are only hints of the meta-fictional style that is emblematic of his later work. The characters are straightforward, the plot line linear, the dialogue realistic. The most interesting departure from standard narrative structure is that some scenes seem designed to set characters up to deliver extended riffs and rants that communicate the author's belief system rather than furthering plot or characterization.

Vonnegut wrote Player Piano as a social satire of his own times, but by setting it in a dystopian near-future, the book was cast as science fiction. At the time, Vonnegut said it was news to him that he was a science fiction author -- he did not want to be seen as part of what he then thought of as a second rate pulp fiction genre. Of course, he went on to embrace the label and become one of its foremost practitioners, even taking a traditional WWII story and transposing it into science fiction (Slaughterhouse-Five).

For me, this completes my re-reading in audio of all of Vonnegut's novels I devoured in print as a youth -- seven of them leading up to the first that I read upon its initial publication (Breakfast of Champions). I remain amazed at how most of them (especially the lesser known titles) hold up to the passage of time, at least thematically (some details, like vacuum tube technology that drives Player Piano's world, have to now be rethought as integrated circuits). I also remain amazed at how well Vonnegut graded himself in Palm Sunday -- he gave Player Piano a B, and I have to concur. It's very good, especially for a first novel, but doesn't rise to greatness of the A books that followed.

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  • Pla77
  • 2016-02-08

Relevant today

This is particularly relevant given the rise of AI and references to vacuum tubes can easily be replaced with transistors without batting an eye. Like most Vonnegut he creates the engine, gets it running, takes a short drive and abruptly abandons it.

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  • thomas
  • 2014-02-20

Spectacular

What did you love best about Player Piano?

It is hard for me to write a review of a Kurt Vonnegut book, I am clearly not a literary critic, but for me he is the most under appreciated writer in the American literary tradition. This book, his first, is just fantastic.

What other book might you compare Player Piano to and why?

Within the Vonnegut library I would say Sirens of Titan, another early book with big ideas.

What about Christian Rummel’s performance did you like?

It is interesting that all the Vonnegut books on Audible have been done by different narrator's and all of them have done a great, great job. Rummel handled the material so well I cannot imagine any else doing it better. Just great.

Who was the most memorable character of Player Piano and why?

Paul Proteus probably but Kroger and Finnerty really cracked me up....sometimes it is hard to tell (when really Vonnegut) if you are imagining his characters or the subsequent one's that recent writers ripped off from him. These are archetypal characters at times and it is difficult not to love all of them.

Any additional comments?

Thanks Audible, well done.

3 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
  • James
  • 2008-12-12

Not Vonnegut's best effort.

I read this a long time ago and bought the A-B. There are some interesting insights in this book that have some application in todays "outsourced" economy. Funy in parts tiresome in others, the ending seems J-V was trying to meet a deadline.

5 people found this helpful

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  • Gerald T. Davis
  • 2020-07-16

Outstanding narration

The book was exactly what I expected by Vonnegut, thought provoking and strangely relevant to 2020. Christian Rummel was outstanding. His reading was masterful, perfect pace and character rendition. I will be searching for his narrations as well as authors of interest.