The Memory of Whiteness

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the year 3229, the entire solar system has been colonized, and music is one of the forces that binds together a disparate human culture. Johannes Wright is the ninth and most recent in a line of master performers on a one-of-a-kind instrument called the Orchestra. THE MEMORY OF WHITENESS follows Johannes and his entourage on their first concert tour of the planets, from Pluto to Mercury. In the course of the tour, Johannes learns more about the Orchestra’s inventor, a brilliant physicist named Holywelkin, and the deterministic worldview that he espoused in his later years. Johannes also comes into repeated contact with the Greys, a mysterious mystical order that claims to possess secret knowledge of the laws of the universe. Johannes finds his own philosophy becoming mystical and deterministic as he comes to realize that his most inspired improvisations seem to be dictated by unknown forces, and that his best music is a direct expression of the laws of nature.

In the course of Johannes’ tour, Kim Stanley Robinson introduces the reader to countless human colonies, each with its own unique life-style. One sees asteroids inhabited by Buddist monks, and terraformed to look like Chinese landscape paintings; one meets dreamwalking Jovians who wear helmets that keep them in REM sleep but also provide the brain with enough sensory input to allow them to walk around. Unfortunately, Robinson leaves these fascinating concepts mostly undeveloped. The author also has an annoying habit of directly addressing the reader in lengthy “Dear Reader” passages. This technique usually implies a well-defined narrator, but that is not the case here. Rather, it seems that Robinson simply chose not to develop the story through dialogue and action. Instead of showing the reader what happens, the writer simply tells us.

Although THE MEMORY OF WHITENESS is Robinson’s third novel, it is less assured than the first two, THE WILD SHORE and ICEHENGE. New readers should start with the earlier books; only dedicated fans will appreciate this one.