The two novels which I am focusing on were published well after Kurt left GE, however the significance of General Electric spills over into the two works. Player Piano, published in 1952, is a novel set in a near future after a third world war has occurred, where the nation’s managers and engineers have developed an abundance of automated systems in order to replace the workforce which was depleted due to the war.  The novel begins ten years after the war, when most factory workers have been replaced by machines. The division of the population is represented by the division of Ilium into “The Homestead”, where the lower classes live, and the other side of the river, where all the engineers and managers live.

The protagonist is Dr. Paul Proteus, an intelligent, thirty-five-year-old factory manager of Ilium Works, who has become discontent with the company, as well as his job. As the novel moves toward its climax we see Paul falling in with a popular uprising, and the eventual overthrow of Ilium Works along with the government system which allowed for automation to replace human workers. However, the last few pages allude to the resistance returning to and rebuilding the system which they just overthrew.
Although in 1952, Kurt Vonnegut denied that Player Piano was a criticism of GE (Bernard was still employed by the company at that time) in later interviews, Kurt conceded that the book was about the House of Magic. The parallels are quite obvious: the original creator of the industrial lab at GE was named Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the GE company retreats which both Kurt and Bernard attended were satirized in three chapters, and the mechanization with which Paul shows discontent mirrors Kurt’s own feelings about his time working at GE. The novel is written much in the same vein as other dystopian novels of this period, but rather than the government being the enemy of human autonomy, it is corporations and their machines which pose the greatest danger to humanity.

The most interesting thing to note about this novel and what it says about Kurt’s own views on culture and humanity, is the ending, where the overthrowers of technology, return to technology in order to rebuild society. It suggests that there is no escaping the machines which we have built, that we are trapped in a cyclical system where we will inevitably be controlled by technology. This fits with his later writings, such as his autobiography A Man Without A Country, where he proudly proclaims that he is not opposed to people calling him a Luddite, because by definition, he is one.[1]

Next week I will discuss the role of Irving Langmuir in Cat’s Cradle.

[1] Kurt Vonnegut. A Man Without a Country (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005): 55