Friday, July 30, 2010

The Memory of Whiteness - Kim Stanley Robinson

The Memory of Whiteness is Robinson's third novel, after The Wild Shore and Icehenge. It's a very unusual book, to me, it really stands out in Robinson's oeuvre. Much of his work deals with science and many of the characters are scientists. In this novel science plays a large role in this novel 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 influence by a scientific theory. The first time I read it, in 2006 I believe, I was very impressed with this somewhat surreal trip though the solar system. A feeling that has not been diminished by this reread.

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. 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 on 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 the various moons and planets for a series of concerts of his music. 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 someone wishes Johannes harm.

Music is an aspect of human culture that pops up on a few occasions 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. He takes it a lot further than that in this novel. Wright's music is more than just music, it is an expression of the equations that are the basis of Holywelkin's theories. A theory that had a very profound impact on science and society as a whole. The science of Holywelkin 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 like 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 theory of gravitation cannot be reconciled with each other. A new layer of physics is needed and 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 to tell this tale is quite on usual for his work. He addresses the reader directly at times, while in other sections he employs a third person point of view. To give you an example in which Robinson tells us about a particular problem he's faced with in this book:
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 focussed, his flesh quivering slightly in the cooling air. But you dear Reader, cannot be told what Dent heard. Words cannot describe this music.

Chapter 3 - Terra Incognita
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 a thirteen centuries from now composing has developed beyond what our ear is 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.

This unusually heavy dose of music notwithstanding, there is quite a bit in this novel that the reader will recognize from other works. Wright's tour of the solar system takes us to many places we visit in other books as well. The part of this novel set on Mars, Wright plays on the slopes of Olympus Mons, is one of my favourite parts of the book. 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 early novels I probably like this one best. The unusual approach to the narrative and the connection between art and science make this novel stand out. I think it is a love it or hate it novel though. Some people will be put off by the direct way in which 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 enjoying The Memory of Whiteness. I would recommend you try it anyway. It's a great piece of science fiction, I've rarely come across a more intriguing read.

Book Details
Title: The Memory of Whiteness
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orb
Pages: 351
Year: 1996
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-312-86143-5
First published: 1985

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