In 1957, Ayn Rand released Atlas Shrugged, a novel which eventually become iconic for its depiction of a socialist dystopia in which the top managers and engineers are marginalized and exploited by the masses, via the government. Five years prior, Kurt Vonnegut had released a novel called Player Piano, depicting a capitalist dystopia in which the masses are marginalized and exploited by top managers and engineers, again, via a system held firmly in place by the federal government. Both books draw upon similar themes, related science fictional elements, and both fall squarely into the tradition of dystopian novels warning against some fearful but plausible future. One has to wonder, of course, whether Rand was answering Vonnegut directly or merely incidentally, since the contrast between individualist and communalist visions could hardly be more starkly drawn.
I am not nearly the first person to notice that these two titans of fiction seem to be squared off directly against one another even while drawing from similar toolkits, but I happened to be reading Player Piano this week and I’ve been struck with the sense that Rand’s magnum opus was fairly decently rebutted by Vonnegut’s freshman effort, which also happens to be a far more compelling read.
If you’ve read them both, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.