In The Memory of Whiteness, Kim Stanley Robinson tells the story of Johannes Wright, Ninth Master of Holywelkin's Orchestra (a complex and wonderful assemblage of musical instruments), and his Grand Concert Tour of the Solar System in the 33rd Century. Robbed of his conventional sight by a drug overdose, musician Wright gains a greater insight into the nature of the universe the more he learns about Arthur Holywelkin, the physicist/musician from centuries past who not only created the Orchestra but also articulated the theory of the ten-dimensional universe. These Ten Forms of Change led to the technology enabling the terraforming of most of the planets and moons in the solar system.
Wright is accompanied on this tour by a support staff, including increasingly needed security, and a music journalist who moves from skepticism to respect fairly quickly. They in turn are pursued from planet to planet, moon to moon on the Tour by both Ernst Ekern, Chairman of the Holywelkin Institute's Board and a key figure in a grand, shadowy "meta-drama," and the Greys, a mysterious cult scattered throughout the solar system. These tensions drive the narrative, and they create a satisfying mystery.
But of more interest to me are those moments when Robinson steps back to explore the ineffable nature of music and its relationship to the micro and macro workings of the universe. Indeed, even the history of space colonization is described in musical terms (Allegro; Ritard: moderato; Adagissimo; Intermezzo agitado; Accelerando). When discussing music, Robinson's prose sings (appropriately enough); but as you realize he uses the same style when discussing physics, you come to appreciate what an achievement this novel truly represents.
If I didn't know better, I might think that this was a novel written late in someone's career: It brims over with well-developed ideas and grand themes concerning the laws which govern the universe and how humanity might better understand its place in this grand scheme. This just goes to show why I am not a fiction writer, because The Memory of Whiteness is one of Robinson's earliest novels.
I've enjoyed everything by Kim Stanley Robinson that I've read, with The Mars Trilogy, The Years of Rice and Salt, and Shaman standing as my favorites. The Memory of Whiteness now joins that list.
by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orb Books, 1996 (Tor Books, 1985)
352 pages, $19.99
352 pages, $19.99