Player Piano is a dystopian novel, possibly set not too far in the future, though a date is never given. I think of it more as an alternate history. It was published in the early 1950s, and it feels like it's set then, even though the world is so different. After a major war, which I assume was World War II, those in power decided that the general public was inefficient at work and that machines could do a better job. As most people's jobs were taken over by machines, they were given houses with up-to-date technology, menial jobs in the army or civic jobs, like asphalting roads, and were expected to live comfortably and quietly. While most people exist in that world, called Homestead, only engineers with graduate degrees have high-paying jobs keeping up the machinery (everyone's a doctor!). They make lots of money and are also expected to live happily and quietly. But, of course, there are discontents on both sides, and they finally decide to do something about it. Then Things Happen.
I don't dislike this novel. I really enjoyed reading it, in fact. The end left me unsatisfied, though. It was too predictable and, for a dystopian novel, pretty stereotypical. Player Piano was published about three years after 1984, and I assume Vonnegut had read both that novel and We, among others, and as awesome as Vonnegut usually is, I'm surprised that he didn't come up with something more creative. In the end, I was disappointed.
As you might know, I’m reading Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s dystopian novel, We. And I’m totally not going to finish it for a couple of weeks because I have Other Things going on. So I thought I’d give you a quick rundown on what is possibly my very favorite literary genre. (Read on if you’re wondering what a dystopian novel is. I’ll get to it eventually.)
What happened: In high school, I was assigned quite possibly the best known dystopian novel of all time. Ever. Yep, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. It remains one of my favorite novels, though I haven’t read it in several years (*adding it to my to-read list now). Written in 1948, takes place in 1984, this novel is a terrifying vision of what the world can be if the government becomes too powerful. You’ve heard of Big Brother. Here’s where he came from.
Second, for me, was Brave New World. It’s about a society in which people are conditioned from birth to think and behave in a certain way. The theory is that if every thought is conditioned, poverty, hunger, and crime will be wiped out. One of their tactics is to limit reproduction and, when a child is born, take him away from his parents to be conditioned by the government. And so on. Good novel.
There was also The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Atwood is one of my very favorite authors. (She’s also active on Twitter!) The Handmaid’s Tale was the first book of hers that I read, and I was enthralled. Like Brave New World, this society is dealing with population problems, but on the other end of the spectrum: for some reason, most women have become infertile. Young women who can have children are forced to become handmaids – or, basically, concubines to rich men. Still one of my favorites. Lots of Atwood’s novels are dystopian. If you like The Handmaid’s Tale, check out Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, both of which I read and reviewed last year. Then read everything else she’s written.
Several years ago, I read Ayn Rand’s Anthem, which is about a society in which even thought is supposed to be collective, and “I,” “me,” and “myself” are Unspeakable Words. I dislike Ayn Rand, so I’m not saying anything else. But Anthem is a dystopian novel that I’ve read.
And don’t forget Fahrenheit 451! A very special book for librarians everywhere. (See? Isn’t this genre exciting?!?) It’s about a society in which books are banned. Owning a book is a crime, and the government conducts regular and very public book burnings. Here’s another one I need to read again. There’s also a good movie version from the 1970s.
Wikipedia’s list of dystopian novels also includes Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which I’ve read and enjoyed, but I don’t think it fits into this category. Dude wakes up turned into a cockroach. His life becomes unpleasant. Things Happen. Not dystopian.
This one’s a short story: “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, in which everyone is supposed to be so equal that “normal” people are required to be handicapped in some way. People with above average intelligence have to wear headphones that make a high-pitched noise ever so often, interrupting any intelligent thought. TV anchormen have to have speech impediments, and so on. If dystopian lit sounds interesting to you, but you don’t want to make the novel commitment, “Harrison Bergeron” might be a good place to start.
And there are so many more! Here are some more that I’ve read and that I recommend. A few are juvenile novels, and I’ll mark them with a J. That shouldn’t keep you from reading them, though. They’re all great books no matter your age.
Do you see a pattern here? A dystopian novel is usually set in the future (sometimes in the very near future) and in a society that has gone horribly wrong. They usually involve totalitarian governments and/or a spent environment. Dystopia is the opposite of utopia, in which society functions perfectly, and everything is pleasant and beautiful and such. If you want to read about those, try Plato’s Republic or Thomas More’s Utopia. I generally find utopian novels a bit, well, boring, so I haven’t read any, I don’t think, except those two. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t!
Bonus: Here’s the iconic Apple Macintosh ad from 1984. It’s worth a watch!
I first read Slaughterhouse-Five many years ago. So long ago, in fact, that I have no idea when it was. I might have been in high school, or I might have been in college. I only remembered a vague outline involving Dresden and time travel – and that I really didn’t like it. Not one bit. The funny thing is that I’m a huge fan of Vonnegut. I’ve read most of his novels, and this is the only one I didn’t like. Something must be wrong.
So, several years later, I decided to give it a second chance. That chance happened a couple of days ago because it’s almost the end of the year, and I’d only read 46 books. This is the Christmas Crunch, and I need short books. Slaughterhouse-Five definitely fits into that category.
It’s about a young (then old, then young again, etc, etc) man who has just joined the army and ends up a POW in Dresden just before the fire bombing decimates the city. Except (the first words of the novel-within-the-novel) “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” He travels back and forth to different points in his life – and death. Including an alien abduction that makes him understand life, death, and time differently.
I liked it better this time, though I’m still a bit ambivalent. It’s okay. It’s certainly not my favorite Vonnegut novel. I think I’ve fallen into a long novel morass, coming off of Midnight’s Children, 1Q84, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Long novels give authors opportunities to fill in gaps left in stories. Vonnegut wasn’t one to write a long novel, of course, and he wasn’t one to write particularly intense ones, either. My favorites are The Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle, both of which are pretty funny. Slaughterhouse-Five is funny in its own way, too, and poignant. I guess I just didn’t spend enough time reading it to internalize it. Maybe that’s what happened when I read it before.