Forsaking Social Hierarchy

Capability Testing in Gattaca and Player Piano 

Keenan Guillas

 Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Player Piano and the 1997 film Gattaca, directed and written by Andrew Niccol, detail the effects of basing a society’s structure on human capability testing, in which test results determine individuals’ futures with little or no freedom of choice. In Player Piano, hyper-mechanization eliminates most available jobs except those few irreplaceable by machines. Individuals with high education and aptitude test scores can claim positions above machines; the remaining population works redundant jobs created only to keep it occupied. In Gattaca, technology makes genetic selection possible at conception; those born “naturally” have inferior genes, and genetic testing identifies those not permitted to work important, interesting jobs, which are reserved only for the genetically elite. Social class and the aspects of life associated with it are decided in both works through testing, and once tested, few opportunities are available for individuals to change their positions. Player Piano and Gattaca expose the weaknesses in determining social construct from human capability testing through scenes of tension and unrest between resulting social classes, characters’ struggles against societal position, and suggestions of an inability to attain expected perfection.

Tension and unrest are evident in both Player Piano and Gattaca not only between different social classes, but within them, as testing for capability has necessitated competition. In Player Piano, those given unimportant jobs view engineers and managers with a mix of envy and hatred, and those intelligent or lucky enough to secure positions above machines view everyone else with contempt. The social classes in Gattaca are reflective of this: “invalids” are labelled as inadequate and insufficient and are consistently told they are not good enough, while those with favourable genes consider natural genes inferior and other “valids” competition. This mental antagonism is reflected in Paul Proteus’ thought, “The usual attitude of the Country Club set towards Homesteaders was contempt, all right” (Vonnegut 174) and Vincent Freeman’s narration, “I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the colour of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science” (Niccol). Paul is introduced in Player Piano to be immersed in the opinions and lifestyle of Ilium Works as a representation of the thoughts of his peers: his views on the different social classes reflect the views of other members of his social class. He initially considers people in the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps and the Army to be inferior, unclean, and depressing; his feelings toward them contain no empathy, only displeasure. Vincent’s description of the genetic division between valids and invalids introduces its inevitability and permanence: this discrimination and the unease that accompanies it are rooted in science, and therefore cannot be disproved or escaped. Invalids have no option to improve their situations and futures because of the immense staticity of their genes, so envy and hopelessness play large roles in the resulting mental separation. In either case, societal divisions have been created by success-predicting tests, and the mental rifts that accompany them instill tension and unease between groups.

Player Piano and Gattaca chronicle characters’ struggles against social position in order to reveal the faults behind social classes established by capability testing. Player Piano’s Paul Proteus strives to reverse the hyper-mechanization of his country; the increased designation of work to machines has removed many satisfactory jobs from the people, and only a select few still hold careers based on actual meaningful work. His decision to break free of this hierarchical labour system parallels Vincent Freeman’s decision to become a “borrowed ladder”: Vincent’s dream of travelling to space is refuted by his genetic status as an invalid, and his determination to achieve this goal drives him to reject his identity for that of Jerome Eugene Morrow, a genetically elite individual with the DNA that will allow Vincent entrance into the Gattaca corporation’s space program. Vincent explains the reasoning behind this decision: “No matter how much I trained or how much I studied, the best test score in the world wasn’t going to matter unless it had the blood test to go with it” (Niccol). Paul’s decision, albeit quite similar to Vincent’s, is fuelled not by a desire to realize a dream, but by an assumed responsibility to restore equal labour opportunities and de-mechanize work: “In order to get what we’ve got…we have, in effect, traded these people out of what was the most important thing on earth to them — the feeling of being needed and useful, the foundation of self-respect” (Vonnegut 175). Paul is convinced that society has taken a wrong turn in replacing humans with machines, and that self-respect has been taken from the common people with the implementation of advanced mechanized work and concentrated into those working above the machines. His desire is to revert society to a less advanced state, where everyone had access to self-respecting work. Vincent’s yearning for space, in contrast, drives him to become someone more advanced, at least on the surface, and to reject the flaws that have labelled him. The restricted freedom that developed as a result of the rigid social class structure from both pieces is challenged by the main characters as a display of its ineffectiveness.

Suggestions of the inability of both an individual and a society to achieve expected perfection through capability testing are presented in Player Piano and Gattaca through the uncovering of flaws. Player Piano’s society attempts to approach perfection by replacing as many occupations as possible with machines, and one of the novel’s recurring ideas, that machines can do everything humans can do but without error, is evidence of these attempts; the position of managers and engineers as above and irreplaceable by machines hints at the expected near-perfection of these roles. Valids in Gattaca are considered by most to be as close to perfect as possible; genetic selection allows people to be able to find the most superior genes in their child, and significant occupations are given only to them in an attempt at approaching perfection. The conclusion of Player Piano, however, suggests that despite the perfection of machines, their dependency on humans to create and maintain them renders their use far from perfect, as evidenced by Finnerty’s comment “If only it weren’t for the people, the god damned people…always getting tangled up in the machines. If it weren’t for them, earth would be an engineer’s paradise” (Vonnegut 322). The fact that the intelligence-testing present in Player Piano put Finnerty and Paul, individuals who decide to overthrow the social class system only to rebuild the machines following their destruction, in control of machines and at the top of the social ladder speaks volumes about the imperfections of this system. This idea that natural, irremovable imperfections are present in humans is also supported by Vincent’s early narration: “For the genetically superior, success is easier to attain but by no means guaranteed. After all, there is no gene for fate” (Niccol). Despite the superiority and careful selection of the genes that make up the genealogically elite, valids can have just as many flaws as invalids, an idea which Eugene’s silver swimming medal and attempted suicide support. The culmination of the imperfections present in both Gattaca and Player Piano points to the system of testing capabilities and determining societal order from it as the biggest flaw.

Player Piano and Gattaca emphasize the ineffectiveness of building social structure from human capability testing by examining the faults of the social systems that arise as a result. Ensuring staticity of individuals in a society creates discontent and tension between groups, and attempting to achieve perfection by rejecting specific groups only furthers unrest amongst classes. This unrest due to structural rigidity can lead to attempts by individuals or groups to break out of their positions, as evidenced by the actions of Paul, Finnerty and the Ghost Shirt Society in Player Piano and of Vincent in Gattaca. Failure of a society to adequately determine even occupational positions from capability testing, as in the case of the role rejection of Player Piano’s Paul and Finnerty or the drastic change in societal position, at least externally, of Gattaca’s Vincent, suggests that testing might be best avoided even when establishing less ambitious systems.

Works Cited

Gattaca.  Dir. Andrew Niccol.  Columbia Pictures, 1997.  Film.

Vonnegut, Kurt.  Player Piano.  New York: Dial Press, 1999.  Print.

Keenan Guillas is enrolled in the Grande Prairie Regional College science and education program with intent to continue his education in Edmonton, Alberta. His love of fiction drives his interest in writing and the arts, and he frequently experiments with various writing techniques and media in his spare time.

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