“Machines have less problems. I’d like to be a machine, wouldn’t you?” -Andy Warhol
At the start of this year, I got the idea that I would re-read (and in come cases, read for the first time) the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. It was originally going to be the entire focus of this blog, but I got distracted. Usually in between ‘serious’ novels I read some horror fiction or something else as a ‘break’, and then, for some reason I decided to read the 1900 page ‘Book of the New Sun’ (technically five books, but it was one massive volume, at least on the kindle). But I did start the year with Vonnegut’s first two books.
I was a precocious, bookish shithead as a child, and either my fourth or fifth grade teacher have me “The Sirens of Titan” to read, possibly as a strategy to shut me up. A strategy which worked; my parents used to encourage me to bring books along in situations where I might get bored or annoying, which was most of them, a practice similar to modern parents giving their kid a phone or tablet. (And no, I don’t think one is better than the other; while not a parent myself, I recognize that sometimes ‘enjoying a meal’ may take precedence over ‘enriching young minds’ and if the tablet keeps a kid quiet long enough to do that, well, c’est la guerre.)
I re-read it in college, probably because it was assigned for some class. My memories of it were fairly vague. I remembered the Trafalmadorians (though I remembered a version of them from a different book, as it turned out), the Harmoniums being used to spell out messages, and the radio-controlled soldiers. And that was about it.
I had never read Player Piano. Honestly, I am glad I didn’t read it as a precocious, bookish shithead of a child, as I probably would have hated it. As a bookish shithead of an adult, it’s… interesting. Vonnegut’s in there, but more like a primordial ooze of Vonnegut, rather than the fully formed one that I devoured as a young adult. His deep befuddlement at the human condition is present. Some of the techniques he would employ in later novels are also there; especially when the book’s focus is on The Shah of Brataphur. Vonnegut would later simply break the fourth wall later on, here, the Shah serves as that outside voice.
It’s all kind of wobbly. Chapters go on a little longer than they have to. Everything goes on a little longer than it has to. Sometimes the satire is entirely too on the nose (calling the supercomputer EPICAC, for example). The ending, while moving in its own way, isn’t exactly clear, and not in a “I’m deliberately keeping this vague” way, more in a “well, I guess this story has to end at some point, so here we go” sort of way.
It’s also good. It got good reviews, and though it didn’t sell particularly well, it’s easy to see why publishers were interested in further works by him. He was also a ’struggling writer’ though a number of books that are now regarded as classics, and are more ‘Vonnegut-like’, so even after he found his voice, he then had to find an audience.
I kept trying to write a segment here on how it feels that we don’t often see these sorts of arcs anymore; that artists seem to arrive fully formed and with a best seller or killer album or amazing performance. But the reality is a lot more complicated than that.
What has happened is, sadly a little more akin to what happens in Player Piano; things are analyzed and perfected for consumption long before we get to see them. This has, for the most part, always been the case, but we’ve gotten a lot better at it over time. Songs have multiple hooks, and are designed more than written. There are exceptions, and probably always will be, but the efficiencies we develop mean that in a lot of cases, we don’t see the development of artists so much as we see the end product of our analysis of art for the purpose of making money. And an artist does happen to stumble upon some successful formula, the expectation is that they will somehow be able to repeat it.
There’s a fascinating video essay on The Human League’s disastrous album “Crash” that’s instructive here. The Human League started life as a weirdo experimental project, turned into a synth-based pop band, and then via a combination of circumstance, a pinch of label intervention, and a right place right time music video they scored a massive hit with “Don’t You Want Me”— and then spend ages trying to replicate that hit, more or less at the insistence of their label. And eventually they did— by hiring outside producers who wrote and produced for them. But unless you’re a Human League super fan, you don’t know all that. If you know them, you know them as the “Don’t You Want Me” band who also had a hit with ”Human”, which you may not remember, but if you are of a certain age, you’ll recognize. The arc, the artistic development, and the struggle are hidden from view, but the machine that insists that you ‘produce hits’ is in plain sight.
I think it would be a benefit to us, as a whole, if we could see the mess more often than the machine; the mess is human, and despite Andy Warhol’s thoughts on the matter, we benefit from being human.