Player Piano

By Janice Robinson,2014-11-04 21:05
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Player Piano



“UNIQUE … one of the writers who map our landscapes for us, who give names to the places we

    know best.”


    ??????The New York Times Book Review

    “A ZANY BUT MORAL MAD SCIENTIST at the controls of a literary time machine … Vonnegut is

    George Orwell, Dr. Caligari and Flash Gordon compounded into one writer.”


    “A BLACK-HUMORIST, FANTASIST, AND SATIRIST, a man disposed to deep and comic reflection on the

    human dilemma.”


    “OUR FINEST BLACK-HUMORIST…. We laugh in self-defense.”

    —The Atlantic Monthly


    —Harper’s Magazine

    “ONE OF THE FEW CONTEMPORARY WRITERS who can make you laugh despite the circumstances—or

    rather, because of them.”

    —The Atlanta Journal & Constitution



    Breakfast of Champions Cat’s Cradle

    Deadeye Dick


    God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater Jailbird

    Mother Night

    Palm Sunday

    Player Piano

    The Sirens of Titan Slapstick

    Slaughterhouse-Five Wampeters, Foma & GranfalloonsWelcome to the Monkey House

For JaneGod Bless Her

    Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: They toil not, neither do they spin;

    And yet I say unto you,

    That even Solomon in all his gloryWas not arrayed like one of these….

    —MATTHEW 6:28


    This book is not a book about what is, but a book about what could be. The characters aremodeled after persons as yet unborn, or, perhaps, at this writing, infants.

    It is mostly about managers and engineers. At this point in history, 1952 A.D., our lives andfreedom depend largely upon the skill and imagination and courage of our managers andengineers, and I hope that God will help them to help us all stay alive and free.

    But this book is about another point in history, when there is no more war, and


ILIUM, NEW YORK, is divided into three parts.

    In the northwest are the managers and engineers and civil servants and a few professionalpeople; in the northeast are the machines; and in the south, across the Iroquois River, is thearea known locally as Homestead, where almost all of the people live.

    If the bridge across the Iroquois were dynamited, few daily routines would be disturbed. Notmany people on either side have reasons other than curiosity for crossing.

    During the war, in hundreds of Iliums over America, managers and engineers learned to get alongwithout their men and women, who went to fight. It was the miracle that won the war—productionwith almost no manpower. In the patois of the north side of the river, it was the know-how thatwon the war. Democracy owed its life to know-how.

    Ten years after the war—after the men and women had come home, after the riots had been putdown, after thousands had been jailed under the antisabotage laws—Doctor Paul Proteus waspetting a cat in his office. He was the most important, brilliant person in Ilium, the managerof the Ilium Works, though only thirty-five. He was tall, thin, nervous, and dark, with thegentle good looks of his long face distorted by dark-rimmed glasses.

    He didn’t feel important or brilliant at the moment, nor had he for some time. His principleconcern just then was that the black cat be contented in its new surroundings.

    Those old enough to remember and too old to compete said affectionately that Doctor Proteuslooked just as his father had as a young man—and it was generally understood, resentfully insome quarters, that Paul would someday rise almost as high in the organization as his fatherhad. His father, Doctor George Proteus, was at the time of his death the nation’s firstNational Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director, a positionapproached in importance only by the presidency of the United States.

    As for the Proteus genes’ chances of being passed down to yet another generation, there werepractically none. Paul’s wife, Anita, his secretary during the war, was barren. Ironically asanyone would please, he had married her after she had declared that she was certainly pregnant,following an abandoned office celebration of victory.

    “Like that, kitty?” With solicitousness and vicarious pleasure, young Proteus ran a roll ofblueprints along the cat’s arched back. “Mmmmm-aaaaah—good, eh?” He had spotted her thatmorning, near the golf course, and had picked her up as a mouser for the plant. Only the nightbefore, a mouse had gnawed through the insulation on a control wire and put buildings 17, 19,and 21 temporarily out of commission.

    Paul turned on his intercom set. “Katharine?”

    “Yes, Doctor Proteus?”

    “Katharine, when’s my speech going to be typed?”

    “I’m doing it now, sir. Ten, fifteen minutes, I promise.”

    Doctor Katharine Finch was his secretary, and the only woman in the Ilium Works. Actually, shewas more a symbol of rank than a real help, although she was useful as a stand-in when Paul was

    ill or took a notion to leave work early. Only the brass—plant managers and bigger—hadsecretaries. During the war, the managers and engineers had found that the bulk of secretarialwork could be done—as could most lower-echelon jobs—more quickly and efficiently and cheaplyby machines. Anita was about to be dismissed when Paul had married her. Now, for instance,Katharine was being annoyingly unmachine-like, dawdling over Paul’s speech, and talking to herpresumed lover, Doctor Bud Calhoun, at the same time.

    Bud, who was manager of the petroleum terminal in Ilium, worked only when shipments came orwent by barge or pipeline, and he spent most of his time between these crises—as now—fillingKatharine’s ears with the euphoria of his Georgia sweet talk.

    Paul took the cat in his arms and carried her to the enormous floor-to-ceiling window thatcomprised one wall. “Lots and lots of mice out there, kitty,” he said.

    He was showing the cat an old battlefield at peace. Here, in the basin of the river bend, theMohawks had overpowered the Algonquins, the Dutch the Mohawks, the British the Dutch, theAmericans the British. Now, over bones and rotten palings and cannon balls and arrowheads,there lay a triangle of steel and masonry buildings, a half-mile on each side—the IlliumWorks. Where men had once howled and hacked at one another, and fought nip-and-tuck with natureas well, the machines hummed and whirred and clicked, and made parts for baby carriages andbottle caps, motorcycles and refrigerators, television sets and tricycles—the fruits of peace.

    Paul raised his eyes above the rooftops of the great triangle to the glare of the sun on theIroquois River, and beyond—to Homestead, where many of the pioneer names still lived: vanZandt, Cooper, Cortland, Stokes …

    “Doctor Proteus?” It was Katharine again.

    “Yes, Katharine.”

    “It’s on again.”

    “Three in Building 58?”

    “Yessir—the light’s on again.”

    “All right—call Doctor Shepherd and find out what he’s doing about it.”

    “He’s sick today. Remember?”

    “Then it’s up to me, I guess.” He put on his coat, sighed with ennui, picked up the cat, andwalked into Katharine’s office. “Don’t get up, don’t get up,” he said to Bud, who wasstretched out on a couch.

    “Who was gonna get up?” said Bud.

    Three walls of the room were solid with meters from baseboard to molding, unbroken save for thedoors leading into the outer hall and into Paul’s office. The fourth wall, as in Paul’soffice, was a single pane of glass. The meters were identical, the size of cigarette packages,and stacked like masonry, each labeled with a bright brass plate. Each was connected to a groupof machines somewhere in the Works. A glowing red jewel called attention to the seventh meterfrom the bottom, fifth row to the left, on the east wall.

    Paul tapped the meter with his finger. “Uh-huh—here we go again: number three in 58 gettingrejects, all right.” He glanced over the rest of the instruments. “Guess that’s all, eh?”

    “Just that one.”

    “Whatch goin’ do with thet cat?” said Bud.

    Paul snapped his fingers. “Say, I’m glad you asked that. I have a project for you, Bud. Iwant some sort of signaling device that will tell this cat where she can find a mouse.”


    “I should hope so.”

    “You’d need some kind of sensin’ element thet could smell a mouse.”

“Or a rat. I want you to work on it while I’m gone.”

    wouldAs Paul walked out to his car in the pale March sunlight, he realized that Bud Calhoun have a mouse alarm designed—one a cat could understand—by the time he got back to the office.Paul sometimes wondered if he wouldn’t have been more content in another period of history,but the Tightness of Bud’s being alive now was beyond question. Bud’s mentality was one thathad been remarked upon as being peculiarly American since the nation had been born—therestless, erratic insight and imagination of a gadgeteer. This was the climax, or close to it,of generations of Bud Calhouns, with almost all of American industry integrated into onestupendous Rube Goldberg machine.

    Paul stopped by Bud’s car, which was parked next to his. Bud had shown off its specialfeatures to him several times, and, playfully, Paul put it through its paces. “Let’s go,” hesaid to the car.

    A whir and a click, and the door flew open. “Hop in,” said a tape recording under thedashboard. The starter spun, the engine caught and idled down, and the radio went on.

    Gingerly, Paul pressed a button on the steering column. A motor purred, gears grumbled softly,and the two front seats lay down side by side like sleepy lovers. It struck Paul as shockinglylike an operating table for horses he had once seen in a veterinary hospital—where the horsewas walked alongside the tipped table, lashed to it, anesthetized, and then toppled intooperating position by the gear-driven table top. He could see Katharine Finch sinking, sinking,sinking, as Bud, his hand on the button, crooned. Paul raised the seats with another button.“Goodbye,” he said to the car.

    The motor stopped, the radio winked off, and the door slammed. “Don’t take any woodennickels,” called the car as Paul climbed into his own. “Don’t take any wooden nickels,don’t take any wooden nickels, don’t take any—”

    “I won’t!”

    Bud’s car fell silent, apparently at peace.

    Paul drove down the broad, clean boulevard that split the plant, and watched the buildingnumbers flash by. A station wagon, honking its horn, and its occupants waving to him, shot pastin the opposite direction, playfully zigzagging on the deserted street, heading for the maingate. Paul glanced at his watch. That was the second shift just coming off work. It annoyed himthat sophomoric high spirits should be correlated with the kind of young men it took to keepthe plant going. Cautiously, he assured himself that when he, Finnerty, and Shepherd had cometo work in the Ilium Works thirteen years before, they had been a good bit more adult, lesscock-sure, and certainly without the air of belonging to an elite.

    Some people, including Paul’s famous father, had talked in the old days as though engineers,managers, and scientists were an elite. And when things were building up to the war, it wasrecognized that American know-how was the only answer to the prospective enemy’s vast numbers,and there was talk of deeper, thicker shelters for the possessors of know-how, and of keepingthis cream of the population out of the front-line fighting. But not many had taken the idea ofan elite to heart. When Paul, Finnerty, and Shepherd had graduated from college, early in thewar, they had felt sheepish about not going to fight, and humbled by those who did go. But nowthis elite business, this assurance of superiority, this sense of rightness about the hierarchytopped by managers and engineers—this was instilled in all college graduates, and there wereno bones about it.

    Paul felt better when he got into Building 58, a long, narrow structure four blocks long. Itwas a pet of his. He’d been told to have the north end of the building torn down and replaced,and he’d talked Headquarters out of it. The north end was the oldest building in the plant,and Paul had saved it—because of its historical interest to visitors, he’d told Headquarters.But he discouraged and disliked visitors, and he’d really saved Building 58’s north end forhimself. It was the original machine shop set up by Edison in 1886, the same year in which heopened another in Schenectady, and visiting it took the edge off Paul’s periods of depression.

    It was a vote of confidence from the past, he thought—where the past admitted how humble andshoddy it had been, where one could look from the old to the new and see that mankind reallyhad come a long way. Paul needed that reassurance from time to time.

    Objectively, Paul tried to tell himself, things really were better than ever. For once, afterthe great bloodbath of the war, the world really was cleared of unnatural terrors—massstarvation, mass imprisonment, mass torture, mass murder. Objectively, know-how and world lawwere getting their long-awaited chance to turn earth into an altogether pleasant and convenientplace in which to sweat out Judgment Day.

    Paul wished he had gone to the front, and heard the senseless tumult and thunder, and seen thewounded and dead, and maybe got a piece of shrapnel through his leg. Maybe he’d be able tounderstand then how good everything now was by comparison, to see what seemed so clear toothers—that what he was doing, had done, and would do as a manager and engineer was vital,above reproach, and had, in fact, brought on a golden age. Of late, his job, the system, andorganizational politics had left him variously annoyed, bored, or queasy.

    He stood in the old part of Building 58, which was now filled with welding machines and a bankof insulation braiders. It soothed him to look up at the wooden rafters, uneven with ancientadze marks beneath flaking calcimine, and at the dull walls of brick soft enough for men—Godknows how long ago—to carve their initials in: “KTM,” “DG,” “GP,” “BDH,” “HB,”“NNS.” Paul imagined for a moment—as he often imagined on visits to Building 58—that he wasEdison, standing on the threshold of a solitary brick building on the banks of the Iroquois,with the upstate winter slashing through the broomcorn outside. The rafters still bore themarks of what Edison had done with the lonely brick barn: bolt holes showed where overheadshafts had once carried power to a forest of belts, and the wood-block floor was black with theoil and scarred by the feet of the crude machines the belts had spun.

    On his office wall, Paul had a picture of the shop as it had been in the beginning. All of theemployees, most of them recruited from surrounding farms, had stood shoulder to shoulder amidthe crude apparatus for the photograph, almost fierce with dignity and pride, ridiculous instiff collars and derbies. The photographer had apparently been accustomed to taking picturesof athletic teams and fraternal organizations, for the picture had the atmosphere, after thefashion of the day, of both. In each face was a defiant promise of physical strength, and atthe same time, there was the attitude of a secret order, above and apart from society by virtueof participating in important and moving rites the laity could only guess about—and guesswrong. The pride in strength and important mystery showed no less in the eyes of the sweepersthan in those of the machinists and inspectors, and in those of the foreman, who alone waswithout a lunchbox.

    A buzzer sounded, and Paul stepped to one side of the aisle as the sweeping machine rattled byon its rails, whooshing up a cloud of dust with spinning brooms, and sucking up the cloud witha voracious snout. The cat in Paul’s arms clawed up threads from his suit and hissed at themachine.

    Paul’s eyes began to nag him with a prickling sensation, and he realized that he’d beengazing into the glare and sputter of the welding machines without protecting his eyes. Heclipped dark glasses over his spectacles, and strode through the antiseptic smell of ozonetoward lathe group three, which was in the center of the building, in the new part.

    He paused for a moment by the last welding-machine group, and wished Edison could be with himto see it. The old man would have been enchanted. Two steel plates were stripped from a pile,sent rattling down a chute; were seized by mechanical hands and thrust under the weldingmachine. The welding heads dropped, sputtered, and rose. A battery of electric eyes balefullystudied the union of the two plates, signaled a meter in Katharine’s office that all was wellwith welding-machine group five in Building 58, and the welded plates skittered down anotherchute into the jaws of the punch-press group in the basement. Every seventeen seconds, each ofthe twelve machines in the group completed the cycle.

    Looking the length of Building 58, Paul had the impression of a great gymnasium, wherecountless squads practiced precision calisthenics—bobbing, spinning, leaping, thrusting,waving…. This much of the new era Paul loved: the machines themselves were entertaining anddelightful.

    Cursorily, he opened the control box for the welding-machine group, and saw that the machineswere set to run for three more days. After that, they would shut down automatically until Paulreceived new orders from headquarters and relayed them to Doctor Lawson Shepherd, who wassecond-in-command and responsible for Buildings 53 through 71. Shepherd, who was sick today,would then set the controls for a new batch of refrigerator backs—however many backs EPICAC, acomputing machine in Carlsbad Caverns, felt the economy could absorb.

    Paul, calming the anxious cat with his long, slender fingers, wondered indifferently ifShepherd really was sick. Probably not. More likely, he was seeing important people, trying toget transferred out from under Paul.

    Shepherd, Paul, and Edward Finnerty had all come to Ilium together as youngsters. Now Finnertyhad moved on to bigger things in Washington; Paul had been given the highest job in Ilium; andShepherd, sulky and carping, but efficient, had, in his own eyes, been humiliated by beingnamed second-in-command to Paul. Transfers were an upper-echelon decision, and Paul hoped toGod that Shepherd got one.

    Paul arrived at lathe group three, the troublemaker he had come to see. He had been agitating along time for permission to junk the group, without much luck. The lathes were of the old type,built originally to be controlled by men, and adapted during the war, clumsily, to the newtechniques. The accuracy was going out of them, and, as the meter in Katharine’s office hadpointed out, rejects were showing up in quantity. Paul was willing to bet that the lathe groupwas ten per cent as wasteful as it had been in the days of human control and mountainous scrapheaps.

    The group, five ranks of ten machines each, swept their tools in unison across steel bars,kicked out finished shafts onto continuous belts, stopped while raw bars dropped between theirchucks and tailstocks, clamped down, and swept their tools across the bars, kicked out thefinished shafts onto …

    Paul unlocked the box containing the tape recording that controlled them all. The tape was asmall loop that fed continuously between magnetic pickups. On it were recorded the movements ofa master machinist turning out a shaft for a fractional horsepower motor. Paul countedback—eleven, twelve, thirteen years ago, he’d been in on the making of the tape, the masterfrom which this one had been made….

    He and Finnerty and Shepherd, with the ink hardly dry on their doctorates, had been sent to oneof the machine shops to make the recording. The foreman had pointed out his best man—what was

    his name?—and, joking with the puzzled machinist, the three bright young men had hooked up therecording apparatus to the lathe controls. Hertz! That had been the machinist’s name—RudyHertz, an old-timer, who had been about ready to retire. Paul remembered the name now, andremembered the deference the old man had shown the bright young men.

    Afterward, they’d got Rudy’s foreman to let him off, and, in a boisterous, whimsical spiritof industrial democracy, they’d taken him across the street for a beer. Rudy hadn’tunderstood quite what the recording instruments were all about, but what he had understood,he’d liked: that he, out of thousands of machinists, had been chosen to have his motionsimmortalized on tape.

    And here, now, this little loop in the box before Paul, here was Rudy as Rudy had been to hismachine that afternoon—Rudy, the turner-on of power, the setter of speeds, the controller ofthe cutting tool. This was the essence of Rudy as far as his machine was concerned, as far asthe economy was concerned, as far as the war effort had been concerned. The tape was theessence distilled from the small, polite man with the big hands and black fingernails; from theman who thought the world could be saved if everyone read a verse from the Bible every night;from the man who adored a collie for want of children; from the man who … What else had Rudy

    said that afternoon? Paul supposed the old man was dead now—or in his second childhood inHomestead.

    Now, by switching in lathes on a master panel and feeding them signals from the tape, Paulcould make the essence of Rudy Hertz produce one, ten, a hundred, or a thousand of the shafts.

    Paul closed the box’s door. The tape seemed in good condition, and so were the pickups.Everything, in fact, was as ship-shape as could be expected, considering the antiquity of themachines. There were just going to have to be rejects, and that was that. The whole groupbelonged in a museum, not a production setup. Even the box was archaic—a vaultlike affairbolted to the floor, with a steel door and lock. At the time of the riots, right after the war,the master tapes had all been locked up in this way. Now, with the antisabotage laws as rigidlyenforced as they were, the only protection the controls needed was from dust, cockroaches, andmice.

    At the door, in the old part of the building once more, Paul paused for a moment to listen tothe music of Building 58. He had had it in the back of his mind for years to get a composer to

    the Building 58 Suite. It was wild and Latin music, hectic rhythms,do something with it—

    fading in and out of phase, kaleidoscopic sound. He tried to separate and identify the themes.There! The lathe groups, the tenors: “Fur-razz-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ak! ting! Furr-azz-ow-ow …”

    The welders, the baritones: “Vaaaaaaa-zuzip! Vaaaaaaa-zuzip!” And, with the basement as a

    resonating chamber, the punch presses, the basses: “Aw-grumph! tonka-tonka. Aw-grump! tonka-

     …” It was exciting music, and Paul, flushed, his vague anxieties gone, gave himselftonka

    over to it.

    Out of the corner of his eye, a crazy, spinning movement caught his fancy, and he turned in hisdelight to watch a cluster of miniature maypoles braid bright cloth insulation about a blacksnake of cable. A thousand little dancers whirled about one another at incredible speeds,pirouetting, dodging one another, unerringly building their snug snare about the cable. Paullaughed at the wonderful machines, and had to look away to keep from getting dizzy. In the olddays, when women had watched over the machines, some of the more simple-hearted had been foundsitting rigidly at their posts, staring, long after quitting time.

    His gaze fell upon an asymmetrical heart scratched into the old brick, and in its center,“K.L.-M.W.”, and the date, “1931.” K.L. and M.W. had taken a liking to one another, then,in the same year that Edison had died. Paul thought again of the fun of showing the old manaround Building 58, and suddenly realized that most of the machinery would be old stuff, evento Edison. The braiders, the welders, the punch presses, the lathes, the conveyers—everythingin sight, almost, had been around in Edison’s time. The basic parts of the automatic controls,too, and the electric eyes and other elements that did and did better what human senses hadonce done for industry—all were familiar enough in scientific circles even in the nineteen-twenties. All that was new was the combination of these elements. Paul reminded himself tobring that out in his talk at the Country Club that night.

    The cat arched her back and clawed at Paul’s suit again. The sweeper was snuffling down theaisle toward them once more. It sounded its warning buzzer, and Paul stepped out of its path.The cat hissed and spat, suddenly raked Paul’s hand with her claws, and jumped. With abouncing, stiff-legged gait, she fled before the sweeper. Snatching, flashing, crashing,shrieking machines kept her in the middle of the aisle, yards ahead of the sweeper’s whooshingbrooms. Paul looked frantically for the switch that would stop the sweeper, but before he foundit, the cat made a stand. She faced the on-coming sweeper, her needle-like teeth bared, the tipof her tail snapping back and forth. The flash of a welder went off inches from her eyes, andthe sweeper gobbled her up and hurled her squalling and scratching into its galvanized tinbelly.

    Winded after a quarter-mile run through the length of the building, Paul caught the sweeperjust as it reached a chute. It gagged, and spat the cat down the chute and into a freight caroutside. When Paul got outside, the cat had scrambled up the side of the freight car, tumbledto the ground, and was desperately clawing her way up a fence.

“No, kitty, no!” cried Paul.

    The cat hit the alarm wire on the fence, and sirens screamed from the gate house. In the nextsecond the cat hit the charged wires atop the fence. A pop, a green flash, and the cat sailedhigh over the top strand as though thrown. She dropped to the asphalt—dead and smoking, butoutside.

    An armored car, its turret nervously jerking its brace of machine guns this way and that,grumbled to a stop by the small corpse. The turret hatch clanged open, and a plant guardcautiously raised his head. “Everything all right, sir?”

    “Turn off the sirens. Nothing but a cat on the fence.” Paul knelt, and looked at the catthrough the mesh of the fence, frightfully upset. “Pick up the cat and take her to myoffice.”

    “Beg your pardon, sir?”

    “The cat—I want her taken to my office.”

    “She’s dead, sir.”

    “You heard me.”


    Paul was in the depths again as he climbed into his car in front of Building 58. There wasnothing in sight to divert him, nothing but asphalt, a perspective of blank, numbered façades,and wisps of cold cirrus clouds in a strip of blue sky. Paul glimpsed the only life visiblethrough a narrow canyon between Buildings 57 and 59, a canyon that opened onto the river andrevealed a bank of gray porches in Homestead. On the topmost porch an old man rocked in a patchof sunlight. A child leaned over the railing and launched a square of paper in a lazy,oscillating course to the river’s edge. The youngster looked up from the paper to meet Paul’sgaze. The old man stopped rocking and looked, too, at the curiosity, a living thing in theIlium Works.

    As Paul passed Katharine Finch’s desk on his way into his office, she held out his typewrittenspeech. “That’s very good, what you said about the Second Industrial Revolution,” she said.

    “Old, old stuff.”

    “It seemed very fresh to me—I mean that part where you say how the First IndustrialRevolution devalued muscle work, then the second one devalued routine mental work. I wasfascinated.”

    “Norbert Wiener, a mathematician, said all that way back in the nineteen-forties. It’s freshto you because you’re too young to know anything but the way things are now.”

    “Actually, it is kind of incredible that things were ever any other way, isn’t it? It was soridiculous to have people stuck in one place all day, just using their senses, then a reflex,using their senses, then a reflex, and not really thinking at all.”

    “Expensive,” said Paul, “and about as reliable as a putty ruler. You can imagine what thescrap heap looked like, and what hell it was to be a service manager in those days. Hangovers,family squabbles, resentments against the boss, debts, the war—every kind of human trouble waslikely to show up in a product one way or another.” He smiled. “And happiness, too. I canremember when we had to allow for holidays, especially around Christmas. There wasn’t anythingto do but take it. The reject rate would start climbing around the fifth of December, and upand up it’d go until Christmas. Then the holiday, then a horrible reject rate; then NewYear’s, then a ghastly reject level. Then things would taper down to normal—which was plentybad enough—by January fifteenth or so. We used to have to figure in things like that inpricing a product.”

    “Do you suppose there’ll be a Third Industrial Revolution?”

    Paul paused in his office doorway. “A third one? What would that be like?”

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