Following swiftly in the wake of his lush and stirring Hugo-and-Nebula nominated debut, the post-apocalyptic The Wild Shore, Kim Stanley Robinson's The Memory of Whiteness, subtitled "A Scientific Romance," was such a radically different and daring work it was hard to believe it came from the same writer. Loving The Wild Shore as I did at the time — being of an age with its characters I felt especially connected to it — I naively expected more of the same here, and so emphatically did not get it that I recall being left thrown for several loops and a few figure-eights. "W," I could only wonder, "TF?" It's only with age and experience under my belt that I realize what a dazzling if imperfect story this actually was.
In The Memory of Whiteness, Robinson uses the tragic myth of Icarus as the framework for a philosophical novel of discovery unafraid to tackle big metaphysical issues. It does so, perhaps, in a way that will drive hard SF purists right up the wall. Free will vs. determinism gets a most vigorous thematic workout here. Probably the story's most inspired touch is its vision of art as science. Naturally, this will likely be the element that alienates the nuts-and-bolts Analog crowd. At the time of the book's release, there was a line in the sand drawn between the cyberpunks, who combined a vision of the evolution of man and machine with a deeply cynical outlook on the nature of both, and the humanists, who might be thought of as SF's hippies, interested more in examining humanity's place in the universe and encouraging a more harmonious relationship between the two.
Here, Robinson considers some different lines in the sand, such as those between genius and madness, between the quest for knowledge and deluded obsession. Knowing what happens to Icarus, there's an inevitability to this novel's outcome that would make the whole thing seem futile if the journey itself weren't as full of wonders as it is. Perhaps that is much of what Robinson is getting at here. It's the journey that matters, as much if not more than the destination. What exalts us as a species is our irrepressible drive to learn and to know. We will pursue this at even the greatest risk to ourselves. Just as Newton's determination to understand light put him at risk of losing his sight, Robinson's mad and driven visionary Johannes Wright will plunge directly into that light, if that's what he must do to find what he seeks. Perhaps not coincidentally, Wright has lost his sight at the moment of his own epiphany.
It's the 33rd century, and humanity has colonized the entire solar system. Tiny whitsuns — little pieces of the sun spread throughout the system via indistinguishable-from-magic technology — enable thriving colonies as far out as Pluto, and even on the remotest of terraformed asteroids. Wright begins his odyssey on Pluto, where he has been chosen to become the ninth Master of Holywelkin's Orchestra. It is a preposterously huge, Rube Goldberg-esque monstrosity, a vast machine comprising a full complement of orchestral instruments, all made to be performed by a single musician operating from a control booth. Why would such an absurdity be built to create music, when real orchestras or even synthesizers would be undeniably easier to manage? Perhaps because its designer, Holywelkin, was the proverbial mad genius. He built his instrument for those equally brilliant and mad.
As the book opens, Wright has rebelled against taking on the role of Master, and given himself over to drug abuse. In his shame, he decides to clean up by enduring cold-turkey withdrawl in the Orchestra's control booth. Here he experiences a hallucination of the long-dead Arthur Holywelkin himself, who informs Wright that no one has understood his instrument, and that it was never meant simply to imitate an orchestra and play conventional scores. Holywelkin's Orchestra was meant for its own unique music, and Wright must find it. He begins to play. Something new, a hitherto unheard music emerges.
Years pass, and Wright is preparing to tour the system, from Pluto straight through to Mercury. He has announced his magnum opus, the Ten Forms of Change. Holywelkin, in addition to inventing the Orchestra, was the physicist whose groundbreaking research into the ten-dimensional nature of the universe, with five macro and five micro-dimensions, made whitsun technology possible. Wright intends to use his music to explore nothing less than the fundamental fabric of existence itself.
Wright's retinue includes his tour manager, Margaret Nevis, fiercely devoted and yet obsessed with saving Wright from himself; and Dent Ios, a freelance music journalist who becomes Wright's unwitting confidante, someone to whom the great composer feels he can speak man-to-man. They try to keep Wright on his feet, especially when it appears some group or faction is trying not only to sabotage the tour but assassinate Wright. We learn quickly who this is. Ernst Ekern is Salieri to Wright's Mozart, a musical mediocrity who has left his failure as a composer behind. Having originally opposed Wright as Master on grounds of pure envy, Ekern is now convinced the man and his music are a menace after his first performance on Pluto drives the crowd into a kind of hypnotic frenzy.
There's more than a bit of Shakespeare in all of this. Some echoes of The Tempest are evident, and the strange order to which Ekert belongs practices metadrama, an idea that takes the Bard's line that all the world's a stage to its literal extreme. They seek to manipulate and control patterns in human behavior on the societal level for the sheer artistry of it, and Ekern will attempt to manipulate Wright as well.
The Memory of Whiteness is an odyssey unlike any in SF. Often it is obscure and difficult to unpack. But when Robinson attempts to describe the indescribable, to convey the ineffable qualities of music that enable it to reach into areas of the mind that other forms of art and communication cannot, the book achieves true moments of awe. If SF is meant to be a literature of ideas and not merely escapist, action formula (though this book does have its fair share of suspenseful thriller moments), we should only hope to see more books this challenging. Some distinct similarities to The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldtritch — about a man who travels to the stars and comes back a god; here Robinson turns the journey inward — make this perhaps the most Phil Dickian book Robinson's ever written, and a reminder of what could be achieved when minds like Dick's, Alfred Bester's, or Sam Delaney's were allowed to run riot through SF. You may decide in the end that The Memory of Whiteness was just not for you. But you can't deny its sense of wonder, at the universe itself and our own need to discover where we fit in its music.