One literary technique that authors often employ is to use a character who is a “visitor” to provide insight into a society’s culture. In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Player Piano, the author employs the Shah of Bratpuhr in such a manner. Instead of seeing a society that is better because of its reliance on machines, the Shah instead observes that the people of Ilium have become slaves to their machines instead. Instead of observing a society that worships a religious God and looks to him for inspiration and guidance, the Shah sees that Proteus’ world instead ridiculously worships and obeys the dictates of the giant computer brain EPICAC.
Instead of admiring Paul Proteus’ society for granting worth based solely on intelligence, status, and education, the Shah recognizes the value of any and all men and the hypocrisy and flaws in the value system used in Ilium. By using the Shah’s distance as a visitor in Player Piano to show the flaws in a world that puts machines over humans, Vonnegut also conveys the negative idea of a society based mainly on mechanical productivity, and the horrors it can bring.
Vonnegut’s use of the Shah as someone who is there to study the workings of Ilium is evident almost from the beginning. He is introduced as early on as the second chapter of the novel where it is stated that his purpose in visiting Ilium is “to see what he could learn in the most powerful nation on earth for the good of his people” (20). One of the things about which the Shah proves most curious is about the role of citizens in the society of Ilium, most particularly about how they fit into a world that is run by machines.
The Shah’s guide Halyard tries to convince him that ‘by eliminating human error through machinery, and needless competition through organization, we’ve raised the standard of living of the average man immensely’ (21). However the Shah is not accepting of this portrayal of how the mechanized society of Ilium is good and liberating for man, and instead repeatedly voices the idea that man has become a “Takaru” or slave to this machine world (22). The Shah’s trip to Edgar Hagstrohm’s house, who is the average citizen, is the Shah’s first encounter with real homesteaders, in their natural environment.
Edgar lives with his wife Wanda, and two kids, one male and one female, in “a postwar development of three thousand dream houses for three thousand families with presumably identical dreams” (160). Edgar lives the same life as everyone else around him and his no true expression of independence, except for his secret love affair. The Shah is shown all throughout their home and is shown all their fancy gadgets, which do everything for them so Wanda, Edgar’s wife, does not have to waste her time. Instead, Wanda is able to do whatever she wants, mainly watch TV, and be able to “live” her life to the fullest (164).
Here again it is shown that the machines control all of what happens, and they completely eliminate any sort of human error. While the Shah is there, Wanda puts on a front to act as if everything is fine and dandy but once he leaves and Edgar and her have a conversation about his secret love affair, is when her true emotions come out. Wanda shows her hatred for living in a life run by machines when she says, “Nobody needs me. You or even little Delores could run the house and all, it’s so easy” (167). Wanda begins to feel useless and nevertheless becomes a slave of the machine.
With his repeated insistence that the people of Ilium are slaves, the visiting Shah is able to provide an insight into the true reality of this society, where people are useless, and worship a false god. Another significant insight into the world of Ilium comes as a result of the Shah’s visit to EPICAC, which coincides with a ceremony at which President Jonathan Lynn of the United States reads a speech about the newest variation of the machine. During the visit, the Shah’s guide Halyard explains how this massive and expensive computer brain works, admiring the virtues of a society run by this machine.
Instead of being impressed, the Shah instead snickers and says that “people in his land sleep with smart women and make good brains cheap” (116). Having the distance of a visitor instead of one already immersed in the brainwashing in Ilium, the Shah is thus able to provide insight into the ridiculousness of a society that relies on a machine instead of humans for its knowledge and guidance. The Shah is also able to cut through the facade presented in Ilium about the powers of the President, as a spiritual leader or otherwise, providing insight into who or what truly holds the power in Paul Proteus’ world.
To underscore the significance of the Shah’s insights as an outsider to Ilium, Vonnegut even has the announcer at the ceremony say ‘Perhaps the Shah will give us the fresh impressions of a visitor from another part of the world, come from another way of life’ (120). And so the Shah does, in ever a dramatic way, when he turns his back on the President and drops to his knees to perform some sort of worship ritual at the foot of EPICAC, as he asks a riddle which in his culture will identify the arrival of an “all-wise god” (122).
When he gets no response from the machine, the Shah then likens it to “Baku,” or a false god. In doing so, the Shah once again underscores how ludicrous it is for the society of Ilium to essentially worship a machine. Not only do the people of Illium worship the machines, they also compete with the machines. Part of the Shah’s journey is to Cornell University, where he experiences more of the life of an Illium “takaru. ” Sitting at the bar are a couple of Cornell football players, who are talking about their games and other teams.
Vonnegut has these men seen in the eyes of the Shah, to show the reader the last thin slice of what society used to be. Football, which is between men and no machines, is now the last fair battle in Illium. There are no machines that tell how well these players are or what is going to happen. The machine has no effect on anything that happens in football, and one man even goes as far as to say, “I could go to the Reeks and Wrecks now and put together a Ivy League championship team out of guys past forty who’re s’posed to be through” (276).
While everywhere else in the world whether it is your job, or even your marriage, the machine is able to predict and tell you what you are going to do and till when you can do it. But this whole idea is thrown out the window with football, as it is the last thing in America, which is purely man vs. man, no machines involved. Doctor Edmund L. Harrison helps show the idea that once you enter the world of the machines, it is impossible to escape, when he interrupts a conversation between a coach and a kid, who wants to stay in school rather than play football.
Harrison aids the kid to play football and never become what he is today, a man who hates his job and his life. He tells the kid that the pain he will feel on the field will be less painful then having to have his job as an engineer, as he says, “In that life, believe me, the thoughtful, the sensitive, those who can recognize the ridiculous, die a thousand deaths” (279). Harrison tries to aid the kid away from engineering and to stay with competing with normal human beings, in a fair battle. Rather one against an all powerful machine, like EPICAC, where you are always going to loose. Vonnegut uses the Shah as a distant bystander to this hole ordeal, to give the reader a glimpse into the unfair battles the machine puts upon humans in society. Using the Shah, as a visitor who is able to provide insight into the culture and society, of “real” Illium, Vonnegut shows the horrific effects a society run by machines has. The Shah is able to recognize the uselessness of people in society and how they have been completely taken out of the picture, and are unable to do anything for themselves, nevertheless making them hopeless slaves of the machines, who can only stare in awe at the amazing things the machines to do for them, even thinking of the machines as a God-like figure.
The Shah is then a witness to a conversation at Cornell University, where he sees that the machines have eliminated all human competition except for football, and that football has become the only fair battle left in America, where one man can verse another man in a fair competition and not always loose the battle and become a slave to the machines.
While Vonnegut, gives the reader a glimpse into a society that could be, people today still are beginning to make our society, into an Illium society, as we are always looking for the next best way to improve something or find the easiest and fastest way to get something done. Kurt Vonnegut’s tale of a horrible machine-run future could be closer than we really think.