Player Piano

Player Piano

by Kurt Vonnegut

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“A funny, savage appraisal of a totally automated American society of the future.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel spins the chilling tale of engineer Paul Proteus, who must find a way to live in a world dominated by a supercomputer and run completely by machines. Paul’s rebellion is vintage Vonnegut—wildly funny, deadly serious, and terrifyingly close to reality.

Praise for Player Piano

“An exuberant, crackling style . . . Vonnegut is a black humorist, fantasist and satirist, a man disposed to deep and comic reflection on the human dilemma.”Life

“His black logic . . . gives us something to laugh about and much to fear.”The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307568083
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/30/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 23,758
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Kurt Vonnegut’s black humor, satiric voice, and incomparable imagination first captured America’s attention in The Sirens of Titan in 1959 and established him as “a true artist” (The New York Times) with Cat’s Cradle in 1963. He was, as Graham Greene declared, “one of the best living American writers.” Mr. Vonnegut passed away in April 2007.

Date of Birth:

November 11, 1922

Date of Death:

April 11, 2007

Place of Birth:

Indianapolis, Indiana

Place of Death:

New York, New York


Cornell University, 1940-42; Carnegie-Mellon University, 1943; University of Chicago, 1945-47; M.A., 1971

Read an Excerpt

Player Piano

By Kurt Vonnegut

Random House

Kurt Vonnegut
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0385333781

Chapter One

Ilium, New York, is divided into three parts.

In the northwest are the managers and engineers and civil servants and a few professional people; in the northeast are the machines; and in the south, across the Iroquois River, is the area 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. Not many 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 along without their men and women, who went to fight. It was the miracle that won the war--production with almost no manpower. In the patois of the north side of the river, it was the know-how that won 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 put down, after thousands had been jailed under the antisabotage laws-Doctor Paul Proteus was petting a cat in his office. He was the most important, brilliant person in Ilium, the manager of the Ilium Works, though only thirty-five. He was tall, thin, nervous, and dark, with the gentle 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. Hisprinciple concern 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 Proteus looked just as his father had as a young man--and it was generally understood, resentfully in some quarters, that Paul would someday rise almost as high in the organization as his father had. His father, Doctor George Proteus, was at the time of his death the nation's first National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director, a position approached 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 were practically none. Paul's wife, Anita, his secretary during the war, was barren. Ironically as anyone 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 of blueprints along the cat's arched back. "Mmmm-aaaaah--good, eh?" He had spotted her that morning, near the golf course, and had picked her up as a mouser for the plant. Only the night before, 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, she was 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--had secretaries. During the war, the managers and engineers had found that the bulk of secretarial work could be done--as could most lower-echelon jobs--more quickly and efficiently and cheaply by machines. Anita was about to be dismissed when Paul had married her. Now, for instance, Katharine was being annoyingly unmachinelike, dawdling over Paul's speech, and talking to her presumed lover, Doctor Bud Calhoun, at the same time.

Bud, who was manager of the petroleum terminal in Ilium, worked only when shipments came or went by barge or pipeline, and he spent most of his time between these crises--as now--filling Katharine'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 that comprised 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, the Mohawks had overpowered the Algonquins, the Dutch the Mohawks, the British the Dutch, the Americans 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 Illium Works. Where men had once howled and hacked at one another, and fought nip-and-tuck with nature as well, the machines hummed and whirred and clicked, and made parts for baby carriages and bottle 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 the Iroquois River, and beyond-to Homestead, where many of the pioneer names still lived: van Zandt, 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, and walked into Katharine's office. "Don't get up, don't get up," he said to Bud, who was stretched 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 the doors leading into the outer hall and into Paul's office. The fourth wall, as in Paul's office, 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 group of machines somewhere in the Works. A glowing red jewel called attention to the seventh meter from the bottom, fifth row to the left, on the east wall.

Paul tapped on the meter with his finger. "Uh-huh--here we go again: number three in 58 getting rejects, 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. I want 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."

As Paul walked out to his car in the pale March sunlight, he realized that Bud Calhoun would 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 rightness of Bud's being alive now was beyond question. Bud's mentality was one that had been remarked upon as being peculiarly American since the nation had been born--the restless, 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 one stupendous Rube Goldberg machine.

Paul stopped by Bud's car, which was parked next to his. Bud had shown off its special features to him several times, and, playfully, Paul put it through its paces. "Let's go," he said to the car.

A whir and a click, and the door flew open. "Hop in," said a tape recording under the dashboard. 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 shockingly like an operating table for horses he had once seen in a veterinary hospital--where the horse was walked alongside the tipped table, lashed to it, anesthetized, and then toppled into operating 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 wooden nickels," 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 building numbers flash by. A station wagon, honking its horn, and its occupants waving to him, shot past in the opposite direction, playfully zigzagging on the deserted street, heading for the main gate. Paul glanced at his watch. That was the second shift just coming off work. It annoyed him that sophomoric high spirits should be correlated with the kind of young men it took to keep the plant going. Cautiously, he assured himself that when he, Finnerty, and Shepherd had come to work in the Ilium Works thirteen years before, they had been a good bit more adult, less cock-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 was recognized 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 keeping this cream of the population out of the front-line fighting. But not many had taken the idea of an elite to heart. When Paul, Finnerty, and Shepherd had graduated from college, early in the war, they had felt sheepish about not going to fight, and humbled by those who did go. But now this elite business, this assurance of superiority, this sense of rightness about the hierarchy topped by managers and engineers-this was instilled in all college graduates, and there were no bones about it.

Paul felt better when he got into Building 58, a long, narrow structure four blocks long. It was 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 for himself. It was the original machine shop set up by Edison in 1886, the same year in which he opened 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 and shoddy it had been, where one could look from the old to the new and see that mankind really had 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, after the great bloodbath of the war, the world really was cleared of unnatural terrors-mass starvation, mass imprisonment, mass torture, mass murder. Objectively, know-how and world law were getting their long-awaited chance to turn earth into an altogether pleasant and convenient place in which to sweat out Judgment Day.

Paul wished he had gone to the front, and heard the senseless tumult and thunder, and seen the wounded and dead, and maybe got a piece of shrapnel through his leg. Maybe he'd be able to understand then how good everything now was by comparison, to see what seemed so clear to others--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, and organizational 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 bank of insulation braiders. It soothed him to look up at the wooden rafters, uneven with ancient adze marks beneath flaking calcimine, and at the dull walls of brick soft enough for men--God knows 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 was Edison, 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 the marks of what Edison had done with the lonely brick barn: bolt holes showed where overhead shafts had once carried power to a forest of belts, and the wood-block floor was black with the oil 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 the employees, most of them recruited from surrounding farms, had stood shoulder to shoulder amid the crude apparatus for the photograph, almost fierce with dignity and pride, ridiculous in stiff collars and derbies. The photographer had apparently been accustomed to taking pictures of athletic teams and fraternal organizations, for the picture had the atmosphere, after the fashion of the day, of both. In each face was a defiant promise of physical strength, and at the same time, there was the attitude of a secret order, above and apart from society by virtue of participating in important and moving rites the laity could only guess about--and guess wrong. The pride in strength and important mystery showed no less in the eyes of the sweepers than in those of the machinists and inspectors, and in those of the foreman, who alone was without a lunchbox.

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

Paul's eyes began to nag him with a prickling sensation, and he realized that he'd been gazing into the glare and sputter of the welding machines without protecting his eyes. He clipped dark glasses over his spectacles, and strode through the antiseptic smell of ozone toward 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 him to see it. The old man would have been enchanted.


Excerpted from Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Player Piano 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 89 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Considering that this book was written in 1952, it is one of his finest novels. I think that in his later works he tends to go a little too far trying to shock his audience. The book is not quite as comical as his later works. Human invisibility is one central theme that Vonnegut addresses, taking the reader to a post WWIII world where the second industrial revolution is beginning to take place in the form of computerization. This has to be one of the first books that addressed the importance of computerz. check it out.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Long winded descriptions. Had a tough time keeping focused and interested .
Macaroni More than 1 year ago
Kurt Vonnegut's best books always seem to have a main central message. Player Piano's is that human's need work. We need it to be happy. Player Piano came from Vonnegut's experience working for General Electric. Upon seeing a machine take over a number of people's jobs, he imagined what it would be like if a giant factory of machines took over all the factory jobs in a city. It's good for production but a terrible shame for all the people. Player Piano is a solid read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is not a terrible book, it in fact has a great plot. It's only flaw, which is a major one, is that it was badly executed, the climax was rushed and thrown out of detail.
johnxlibris on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Through the perils and necessities of war, America has become a thoroughly automated, thoroughly class-divided society: the high-IQ, PhD carrying managers and engineers run the production lines (that is, they supervise the machinery) while the average citizen (low IQed) lives comfortably in his or her prepackaged, government subsidized home. While you might scoff at the idea of your entire life being determined solely on the result of a few test scores (and subject to the rigidity of machine logic), don't fret: everyone gets a television. The American dream.Paul Proteus, the illustrious manager of the Ilium works and son of a national hero of wartime industry, loses touch with the spirit of the age. He is disillusioned with the idea that machines make life better: that the increasingly mechanized/automated aspects of human life increase the quality thereof. Though he has never known life without machines, he instinctively feels mankind (though, decidedly not womankind, as the novel lacks any strong female character) has lost part of its essence, its definitiveness.The picture of an entirely automated existence where every citizen's lifestyle is maintained (read: checked) through a complex infrastructure of machinery originally appealed to me. As a blogger/ gmail/ greader/ google doc/ twitter/ facebook/ digsby/ ff3/ google desktop/ obsessively-GTD user, I understandably was drawn to Vonnegut's post-bellum world. But so much potential was lost on me after the first 100 pages. The story develops slowly and only begins to draw momentum toward the final chapters. Although a slow-paced narrative could easily be overcome through complex characterization or philosophical musing, Vonnegut (characteristic of his later style) attempts neither. The figure of Paul, unlike the stably stoic Billy Pilgrim, shimmers hazily just on the edge of the narrative, haphazardly jumping into the spotlight from time to time to assert... well, nothing consistent. At best, he's a Prufrock, and a mildly-placid one at that.Glancing over the reviews of the work on LibraryThing, many readers think this early work permits glimpses of a future style characteristic of Vonnegut. Indeed. I would go further to say that Player Piano tries to hard to be not-Vonnegut. This resistance to that later style results in a thinly spread novel that tries in spite of its creator to pull back upon itself.
mustreaditall on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
You could see Vonnegut's genius in his first novel.On a blog I read, the Devil Vet's been thinking about hope and hopelessness in dystopian fiction. I think Player Piano is good example of how hope plays into dystopian narratives. The Ghost Shirt Society of the book rises in rebellion against the soul-numbing mechanized society even though they know they will fail. Why? Simply to show that it can be done. That there can be light at the end of that tunnel, if power is wrested from the managers and engineers who hold it in that society. "Hope in hopelessness" indeed.But then, that's one of Vonnegut's favorite themes (literally from the beginning, as we see) to kick around. You might have the whole world against you, you might know from the beginning that stretching your wings will just result in being shot out of the sky, but the exercise of whatever freedom you can snatch is worth the fall.Of course, he didn't rely simply on ideas. The man could spin a yarn. The whole section of the book where Proteus has to go on an annual weekend team-spirit-building retreat had me chuckling through my anger. I hate that kind of workaday pep rally crap, and that particular scenario sounds like my idea of four days of hell. And the chapter in which Proteus buys a small, old school farm - thinking that will calm his need to get out of the "we are all cogs" system - and his wife takes it completely the wrong way sort of broke my heart. Though, I have to admit, I felt some for the wife - it's not like he spent any time communicating his feelings or situation to her.The running thread of the Shah of Bratpuhr touring the US, with his guide in more and more dire straits, was a nice touch. Sometimes that kind of show-and-tell subplot can feel tacked on or unnecessary, but Vonnegut's storytelling allowed it to weave in and out of the major thought: No surprise, I agree with him. If you take away a person's chance to do for themselves, you take away a major reason to get out of bed every morning. I'm not saying we all have to work hard or die. I'm just saying, yeah, we all need that feeling of dignity that honest work can provide, whether for decent wages or just for our own benefit.
Justjenniferreading on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was my first Kurt Vonnegut book (other than Man Without a Country) and I was as happy with the book as I thought I would be. His witting style was very easy for me to read. I literally couldn't put this one down. I like the idea of technology causing problems. Even as technology friendly as I am I can see that someday there could be a meltdown and technology will be at the center of it.Mr. Vonnegut's look into the future, from the past, was very interesting. More so to see what his idea of technology in the future would be like, and to compare it to what really exists today.Being that this was my first Kurt Vonnegut book I am looking forward to reading even more.
jennyo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love Vonnegut, but this one was pretty dated. Didn't hold up as well as most of his other stuff.
stipe168 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The most realistic vision of the future i've read so far.
egoose1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Vonnegut's first novel: the introduction to his brilliance as a thinker, writer and comedian. Player Piano is set in a futuristic America where the world is run by machines and social status/jobs are decided by computer-IQ tests. Main character and protagonist Paul Proteus is a genius whose intelligence has brought him to become a wealthy, upper class citizen of society. Proteus grew increasingly dissatisfied with what the world had become - a machine and industrialized center where human action was no longer needed. This life left him feeling unhappy and painfully useless, longing for a more complex lifestyle. Proteus's best friend Finnerty had similar feelings about society and became the radical rebel leader of the "Ghost Shirt Society," an organization who's goal was for humans to re-gain control of this now machine-run world. Because of Finnerty's finagling, Paul found himself the new leader of this Ghost Shirt Society (once again, he was the most intelligent individual involved). The Ghost Shirt Society rebels, attempting to take over the machines that run mankind. They ultimately fail, even having acted upon their beliefs. The leaders of the Ghost Shirt Society realize it is impossible to take over what the world has already become, and finally subject themselves to the authorities of society. Player Piano is a story of a "techno-utopia" where machines have ultimately replaced the human mind. Vonnegut wrote satirically about a world consumed with technology, everyone in a way predestined to their lives and jobs- every bit of intellect being gauged by an IQ test. It is clear that Vonnegut's view of utopia is the opposite of what this futuristic society represents. He used Paul as the protagonist, attempting to re-create the actual dystopian environment he was living in. Like Huxley, Vonnegut writes to warn the reader that technology, machines, and consumerism are taking over. He satirizes the society, but the daunting elements of reality are what open the eyes of the reader. I rated this novel a 3.5/5. This is not to say that I didn't enjoy it, though, because I did. I couldn't give it more stars because there are novels that I've become more wrapped up in than this one. I drew a lot of parallels between Huxley's Brave New World and Player Piano, which I read at the same time. This may have been a factor in my partial-dissatisfaction. However, having read three utopian novels in the past few months, I've really grown able to pick out the utopian and dystopian aspects of the story, and I've learned how to realize what message the author is advocating/teaching. Having read other books of his, Vonnegut truly is a brilliant writer. I recommend this book to someone who will enjoy a futuristic, satirical book that opens your eyes to what the world actually may be becoming... scary!
fuzzy_patters on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In this, Vonnegut's first novel, Dr. Paul Proteus lives in a futuristic dystopia in which everything is automated so that humans no longer have to work or even think except for the engineers and managers who have become the second highest class of society second only to the machines themselves. Meanwhile, a group of revolutionaries are trying to bring down this system in order to bring back pride and human dignity to those who have been replaced by machines. Despite having been written sixty years ago, I found this book to be very timely in an era in which many Americans have lost jobs to either machines or foreign workers. In many ways, Vonnegut's book is a very prescient look at our world today. This prescience extends beyond the loss of meaningful work for many Americans. Vonnegut also foresees many of the advancements that have been made in the tools we use in our everyday lives. For example, the non-engineering/managing class has been made content in the novel through having 40 inch TVs in every room, and their lives have been made easier through having "radar ranges," which are basically microwave ovens. In the novel, these things are provided for the populace in order to keep them content in the new role that machines play in society. It brings to mind how many Americans today are more interested in American Idol than in current events. Despite being his first novel, this book also does not lack any of Vonnegut's trademark wit and satire. There are parts that are laugh out loud funny, and Vonnegut is such a good story teller that I found that I could not put the book down for want of finding out what would happen next. This is typical of a Vonnegut novel for me, and it seems that he possessed this trait way back in 1952. While this novel may not be as famous as later novels such as "Slaughterhouse Five" or "Cat's Cradle," I found this novel to be every bit as engaging as those two.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Decent satirical storyline, although not with the same wit and cutting pxrecision as some of his other works. The central story tends to get lost in rabbit trails and ancillary anecdotes. Overall a bit tough to work through, but adequately satisfying in the end.
xnfec on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of his earlier books. a 50's dystopia. Quite prophetic in some ways
Trotsky731 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not quite vintage Vonnegut but a great novel nonetheless. As an earlier work you can see that his genious hasn't quite fully come together but is nearly there. In our modern age it is a little dated, with computers using punch cards and vacuum tubes, but the message is not lost
hlselz on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is my favorite Vonnegut book. I think it was his first? The book is about a world in which most of the labor done in the world is done by machines. (think factory machines, not computers) There are class divisions between those who are smart and control the machines, and those who are out of work, because there is no work to do. Then, all hell breaks loose. MWA HA HA.
fodroy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Vonnegut's first novel. Doesn't have the brilliance of his later work, but this is still a great, though-provoking satire about extreme bureaucracies.
Smiley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Vonnegut's first novel is my personal favorite. Delicious satire of machine dominated, practical America, over-education, the lust for titles, false hopes, failed rebellion and living up to your family's expectations. This former "underground" classic has become more relevant with the advent of cell phone drivers and the internet obsessed.
ErixWorx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the best anti-technology books I know of; right up there with Frankenstein.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is not timeless. It is too dated technologically.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We would like to join
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Ok. Thank you" sh meows.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Replace the word machine with the word outsource as yoi read the book andd you have our current situation