The Memory of Whiteness by Kim Stanley Robinson science fiction book reviewsThe Memory of Whiteness by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Memory of Whiteness is Kim Stanley Robinson’s third novel, after The Wild Shore and Icehenge. It’s a very unusual book, standing out in Robinson’s oeuvre. Much of his work deals with science and many of his characters are scientists. In this novel science plays a large role as well, but this time it is not so much the process and the ways it can change the world but rather the world view that is influenced by a scientific theory.

The novel is set in the thirty-third century, some three centuries after a physicist named Arthur Holywelkin forces a paradigm shift in physic by revealing a theory that is the biggest breakthrough in science since Albert Einstein’s. In his later years, Holywelkin devotes his time to building a massive musical instrument known as The Orchestra, a complex instrument allowing one man to play the 30th century equivalent of a symphonic orchestra. Three centuries after its creation, the debate about whether it is actually a musical instrument or a glorified recording studio is still raging.

Recently, Johannes Wright, the ninth master of The Orchestra, has started preparing for a tour of the solar system. Starting from The Orchestra’s home on Pluto, the trip will take them down the gravity well towards the sun, stopping at various moons and planets for a series of concerts, compositions based on the physics of Arthur Holywelkin. The eagerly anticipated tour is followed around the solar system by an armada of spaceships. Not all of them turn out to be admirers, though. It soon becomes apparent that someone wishes Johannes harm.

Music is an aspect of human culture that occasionally pops up in Robinson’s work. I recall one scene from Antarctica in particular, where the main characters are caught up in the excitement of a really good rock concert. Robinson takes it a lot further than that in this novel. Wright’s music is more than just music — it’s an expression of the equations that are the basis of Holywelkin’s theory, a theory that had a profound impact on science and society as a whole. Holywelkin’s theory and the music that Wright produces are so intertwined that in some parts of the novel you have to pay close attention to figure out which it is the characters are talking about.

To make the mesh of ideas and concepts even more complicated, Robinson also hooks up a philosophical debate to Holywelkin’s work. From the days of the ancient Greek philosophers to Newton’s formulations of classical mechanics, scientists were trying to express everything in exact definition and precise mathematical formulations. Until the twentieth century that is, when words such as “relative” and “uncertain” showed up in physics. It seems that the rigid determined grid of the universe expressed in Newton’s formulas is not the entire truth after all. Still, even with new theories, problems remain. Quantum mechanics and the theory of gravitation cannot be reconciled with each other, so a new layer of physics is needed. Holywelkin comes up with one that seems to work, a system that seems to be able to predict the movement of any particle. A theory that can, given sufficient computational capacity, predict the future. Or, as one small but powerful sect would have us believe, the future is preordained, there is no free will. Is this something you want to believe, or do you put your faith in yet another layer of physics, one that again encapsulates all that has gone before in an indeterminate system, yet to be unveiled?

The narrative voice Robinson uses in The Memory of Whiteness is usual for his work. He addresses the reader directly at times, while in other sections he employs a third person point of view:

How does music mean? Not, you can be sure, in words. Music is a language untranslatable, it is too direct, too subtle, too …other for words. Music moves directly from the inner ear to the lower brain stem, where our emotional lives are generated; and nothing can stimulate the complex response that music does, except music itself.

So Dent sat on his knoll above the amphitheater and listened to Johannes Wright play, as the late afternoon shaded into evening; he listened with all his mind focused, his flesh quivering slightly in the cooling air. But you dear Reader, cannot be told what Dent heard. Words cannot describe this music.

Despite this problem of putting music into words Robinson succeeds very well in describing the emotions attached to it. The Orchestra is a strange instrument and, thirteen centuries from now, composing has developed beyond what our ears are used to. Nevertheless, the author manages to capture the elation the characters feel when Johannes plays, the rapture they experience when Wright reveals the mysteries of Holywelkin’s theories to them. Perhaps music cannot be put into words, but Robinson gets his point across.

The unusually heavy dose of music notwithstanding, there is quite a bit in The Memory of Whiteness that the reader will recognize from other works by Kim Stanley Robinson. Wright’s tour of the solar system takes us to many places we visit in his other books. The part of the story set on Mars, when Wright plays on the slopes of Olympus Mons, is one of my favourite parts of The Memory of Whiteness. We also see some elements there that will return in the MARS trilogy. The conflict between Red and Green appears in a slightly different form for instance. The tour also passes a whole range of social experiments on smaller inhabited objects. With so many places in the solar system open to human habitation, just about every society you can think of has found a home somewhere. Robinson doesn’t go into any of them in detail but some of these ideas do return in later books.

Of all Robinson’s earliest novels, I probably like this one best. The unusual approach to the narrative and the connection between art and science make The Memory of Whiteness stand out. I think it is a love it or hate it novel though. Some people will be put off by the direct way the author addresses the reader, others will think the scientific aspect of the book didn’t receive enough attention. With a focus on art and philosophy, there is no guarantee that readers who like the MARS trilogy will enjoy The Memory of Whiteness, but I would recommend you try it anyway. It’s a great piece of science fiction.

Published in 1985. An early novel from SF legend Kim Stanley Robinson, The Memory of Whiteness is now available for the first time in decades. In 3229 AD, human civilization is scattered among the planets, moons, and asteroids of the solar system. Billions of lives depend on the technology derived from the breakthroughs of the greatest physicist of the age, Arthur Holywelkin. But in the last years of his life, Holywelkin devoted himself to building a strange, beautiful, and complex musical instrument that he called The Orchestra. Johannes Wright has earned the honor of becoming the Ninth Master of Holywelkin’s Orchestra. Follow him on his Grand Tour of the Solar System, as he journeys down the gravity well toward the sun, impelled by a destiny he can scarcely understand, and pursued by mysterious foes who will tell him anything except the reason for their enmity.


  • Rob Weber

    ROB WEBER, a regular guest at FanLit, developed a fantasy and science fiction addiction as well as a worrying Wheel of Time obsession during his college years. While the Wheel of Time has turned, the reading habit that continues to haunt him long after acquiring his BSc in environmental science. Rob keeps a blog at Val’s Random Comments.