Compared to works that followed Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel is fairly traditional in structure, technique, and style, particularly in the presentation of the main plot. The author employs an omniscient narrator and progresses in a straightforward, chronological order. As in many of his other novels, Vonnegut offers a disturbing vision of a future world that, in the interests of progress and efficiency, robs humanity of its basic dignity and sense of self-worth.
The America that Vonnegut depicts hums with the efficiency of its machines. Vonnegut probably was inspired to write Player Piano by his work in the publicity department of General Electric; his skepticism about the future promised by the makers of electronic gadgets is the major theme of the novel. Machines provide most goods and services, leaving the masses with what should be an enviable freedom to pursue ends other than work. The trouble is that the average citizen, freed from both drudgery and want, reacts more like a slave than like a liberated spirit, in part because the sort of freedom offered deprives the individual of purpose and offers no valued substitute for work. The welfare underclass grows listless and surly; resentment finally is fanned into the fires of revolt. There is, however, an inherent paradox in the rebellion, for even while the rebels are on their machine-destroying rampage, they make repairs and refinements to various machines. One rebel, for example, offers to repair the broken headlight on Proteus’ car; others attempt to fix a soft-drink machine even though no one likes the drink it dispenses. The rebels are not opposed to machines but rather to the alienation that the machines allow; they desire a useful role and productive work.
A subplot involves a state visit by the Shah of Bratphur, who is being given a guided tour of the United States. This subplot foreshadows Vonnegut’s later works in characterization and comic technique. The shah, as an autocratic ruler, ingenuously but accurately perceives the masses in America as slaves, despite the efforts of State Department officials to alter that perception. The subplot intersects with the main plot only near the end of the book, but the thematic relationship is clear throughout. The subplot illustrates the unique brand of offbeat humor apparent in Vonnegut’s later novels as well as making his didacticism palatable.