"This book is not a book about what is, but a book about what could be."
Interesting - after its first release in 1952 there was a second one in 1954 which the editors had planned to re-name to Utopia-14, but then they had second thoughts and kept the old name. And "Player Piano" is a very appropriate name, because the story is about a dystopia, where the world is totally mechanized and the future belongs to the perfect division of labor in society. A small group of oligarchs rules the whole society, but those oligarchs are not exactly capitalists - instead they're engineers and managers, dispassionate and devoid of any emotions. The machines have reached their ultimate triumph, pushing the now useless workers away from the production process and leaving them on the sidelines. The total mechanization is leading society on a collision course between these two classes - the ruling technocrats and the ruled masses.
With what would become his trademark dark humor Vonnegut tells the story of an engineer named Paul Proteus who wants to live in a world where humans are not a mere supplement, but an integral part of society. And though he makes the perfect climb up the ladder of success (the perfect wife, a good position at an industrial enterprise called Ilium, which oddly resembles General Electric), a big promotion at work etc, he's still gnawed by anxieties about humankind's future. So Proteus eventually joins a resistance organization which is planning a revolution against the reign of the machines. But he soon realizes that resistance is futile. He realizes that in reality their goal has always been to just give some hope to humanity, not to start a real rebellion...
In some sense this book contains some biolgraphical elements from Vonnegut's life, because it reflects his departure from General Electric and the start of his writing career. He himself has admitted that Player Piano was his response to the "intentions of the technocrats to make everything be ruled by small boxes". Yes, there's some good use of small thinking boxes that make all the work for us, but in the meantime this inevitably brings some changes in human beings. In a way he argues that the motto "Arbeit Macht Frei" applies fully to society, and us humans obtain our dignity through work, through being useful to society, and through getting rewarded for it - and not just in the financial sense, but mostly the social.
This first book of Vonnegut pretty much outlined the general direction of his further career, and the main themes in his great sci-fi books that he wrote later. We'd see the same similar issues in his other books - technology being a double-edged sword, the human necessity for a life full of meaning, the problem with overcoming solitude when all friendships and relationships break down. The biggest problem in this story is that with the advance of technology, humans become increasingly redundant, and this feeling starts soaking into society, and causes all sorts of social problems, unrest, and negative transformations (and I would add potentially positive ones too, but not without all the turmoil and cataclysm involved). And this is a warning that's valid today, too. 60 years later.
Sure, he does use a lot of hyperbole, sometimes mixed with almost childish situations, and sometimes he takes the detached, outsider's position when talking about these things, and leaves us enough room to paint the rest of the picture on our own, using our imagination. This is his art. But the main theme can be clearly traced through the whole story: the social protest against the dehumanization of the humans, due to their obsession with technology, and due to embracing it as the only savior of humankind, a devotion to science and technology that in a sense borders almost on a religious experience. Hyperbole perhaps - yes. But worth thinking about. His point is that in a way, we become slaves to our own creation. And slowly and unnoticed, the tools take over their masters.
And that's the metaphor behind the Playing Piano, which is a device that plays itself on its own. It's a symbol of a society that has turned into a tool, playing the programmed tune flawlessly, without the necessity for outside intervention, and making humanity obsolete in the process.
The book was written in 1952, but now in 2012 it's still valid. Because it's a story about the desperation of a doomed cause, a revolution that's destined to fail in a world which rejects any kind of revolutions... A story about the meaningless rebellion of the human who's trying to change that world, but to no avail - because it's too late.
And the saddest part about the whole thing is that, despite his brilliant cynical tone and his tremendous ability to expose the problems and to mock the absurdities of that world, in fact the author is still unable to suggest any viable solutions, and he doesn't seem to have an idea about a possible way out of this situation. Maybe because some problems just do not have a solution...