I read a bunch of Vonnegut's stuff in late high school and college (15-20 years ago) and remember really enjoying him. I didn't recall if I had read this one or not (and now after reading it am sure I did not) before and figured either way he is probably worth a re-visiting in an effort to update these reviews. This one (which I have discovered to be Vonnegut's first and was published in 1952, 5 years before Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged) was engaging and forward thinking social commentary. Certainly supports the idea that I should read (and re-read) more of his stuff.
Paul Proteus is a wishy-washy hero, but provides a great vehicle through which Vonnegut can make his comments and predictions of the future mechanization of American society. Certainly 60 years after its publication, I have the benefit of the unfolding of history to point out some of Vonnegut's weaknesses: socialization of the mass populace is not necessary, we moderns instead just disenfranchized those who are not willing to provide manual labor and the education of former third world populations has allowed us to outsource cheap intellectual labor rather than create a hierarchy of the intellectual (to which I am not convinced I am opposed..see Atlas Shrugged for a potential Utopian ideal). However, one can imagine how especially in the 50s the events of this novel may not have seemed so far fetched.
Over and over he gives us examples of the inefficiency created by the "uber-efficiency" of the machines: well qualified men being given the axe (Bud and Halyard) simply because they do not meet some ridiculous criteria. The well oiled machine of American society has been bureaucratized to such an extent that they are no longer making the best decisions on a global scale.
Vonnegut's plot is thin and the use of Halyard's tour with the Shah simply a vehicle for conversations with "interesting" other member of the population (barbers, Edgar Hagstrohm..average man, and college football coaches and players) as well as examination of the system by an outsider. I found the Shah's insistence on calling the averageman a Takaru (slave) and Halyard's original refutation of this term followed by his eventual agreement to be entertaining.
Of course Vonnegut is not attempting to really draft a compelling story; the whole thing is a ruse for social commentary. And so, there are quite a few conveniences and mishaps along the way. I have a few funny/apt quotes below:
"It isn't knowledge that's making trouble, but the uses it's put to."
"'I'm going to get myself a uniform, so I'll know what I think and stand for.' 'Or two--like Luke Lubbock'"
"IQ isn't everything. Some of the unhappiest people in this world are the smartest ones."
"Men, by their nature, seemingly, cannot be happy unless engaged in enterprises that make them feel useful."