The Memory Of Whiteness: A Scientific Romance is Kim Stanley Robinson’s third book, and from what I can gather his most philosophical. In it, he tries to tie a few threads of thought together: how determinism ties in with quantum physics and free will; art as representation of reality; how human thinking corresponds with reality & direct and indirect kinds of knowledge. The device KSR uses to connect all this is music.
The Memory Of Whiteness is philosophical musings first, and story second. I don’t think it has aged particularly well, and I don’t think it has a lot to offer to people that are already familiar with the topics I listed above – and I don’t mean as familiar like a CERN scientist, but familiar in a Quantum Physics For Dummies kinda way. I’m not sure how well known the general outlines of quantum physics were back in the 1980ies, but today those outlines are pretty much common knowledge to people with a healthy interest in their reality and a library card.
The notion of indeterminacy on a subatomic level has been a veritable feast for some philosophers of the postmodern ilk: an electron’s speed can’t be measured at the same time as its spin! Nothing is certain!! What we feel has been proven by hard science!!! Praise Heisenberg!!!! It went so far that people thinking philosophically about truth and representation – and that means nearly everybody writing theory about the arts, as most (if of not all) art is grounded in representation, as also non-representative art stems from representative predecessors – needed to become familiar with the Quantum. Of course, all this was quite overblown. It’s not because some subatomic processes are strange and weird that our Newtonian world – still the only world we live in – all of a sudden becomes unknowable and undetermined. Still, serious writers and serious philosophers needed to opine about Schrödinger’s cat and the possible existence of the Higgs boson, and Einstein’s dictum that ‘God doesn’t play dice’ was made fun of, even in works of popular culture that needed a claim on depth.
Kim Stanley Robinson clearly wasn’t a fool, not even back in those days. He saw through this mirage of uncertainty, and envisioned a world that was beyond these debates.
Newtonian physics is deterministic. It is true that it fits into the larger framework of the probabilistic system of quantum mechanics. But quantum mechanics fits into the larger framework of Holywelkin physics; and Holywelkin physics is again deterministic.
Holywelkin is a fictional scientist, and The Memory Of Whiteness is set in 3229 AD – it chronicles a tour of humanity’s most important musician/composer throughout the solar system.
I very much agree with KSR’s philosophical stands in this book, but that didn’t make for a better reading experience – maybe even on the contrary. Throughout the novel, my main thought was: I read that already somewhere else. Been there, done that. As I said, this book is musings first, story second. The characters are rather thin, and their actions don’t amount to much. It even has a Dan Brown subplot featuring secret ancient cults going all the way back to Mithras. It’s all quite silly.
Also the musings about music aren’t that interesting if you’ve read a wee bit about music theory. KSR simply is a fan of the Schopenhauer school. Here’s Arthur, back in 1818:
Music is as immediate an objectification and copy of the whole will as the world itself is, indeed as the Ideas are, the multiplied phenomenon of which constitutes the world of individual things. Therefore music is by no means like the other arts, namely a copy of the Ideas, but a copy of the will itself, the objectivity of which are the Ideas. For this reason the effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence.
And here’s Kim Stanley, 167 years later:
Genius is not a matter of intelligence, but of spirit; and we cannot speak accurately of the spirit in any language but music.
“Music,” the Grey says, “is an expression of the universe, related to ideas as ideas are related to things. And at the same time that it speaks this universality, it is also most distinct and precise in form. (…) All possible manifestations of human experience may be expressed in music, but always in their form only. You might say that music expresses the soul of experience, not the body. This deep relation that music has to the true nature of things makes it a language capable of the most distinct and accurate description of the universe; (…)”
Moreover, there’s absolutely nothing in the book about John Cage’s 4’33” and the likes. The Holywelkin Orchestra is a bit of an odd instrument, true, but instrumentation aside, music seems quite traditional in the 33rd century. A missed opportunity, which makes The Memory Of Whiteness rather conservative and superficial in its musical musings.
Strange for an evolutionary writer like KSR: why didn’t he speculate more on how music could evolve? My answer to this question is that this novel – although it is marketed this way – ultimately is not about music, but about Robinson’s desire to let his readers see the real reality of their existence.
The two main characters – both the protagonist and the antagonist – explicitly state that to be their artistic goal too.
“I want to show people the real. I want people to hear the true nature of reality just as clearly as the sound of their own name.” (Wright)
“In this world we live behind veil after veil of illusion, we cushion ourselves from reality in great tissues of lies, until we live like mummies, already dead. The work of the order is to trick these lies away, to strip all illusions and sorrows and make all these poor players see what a world they live in.” (Ekern)
Throughout the book, the fact that we humans are determined by what causes us pops up again and again, already fully explicit in the prelude.
What moves us to act, where are the springs of action?
(…) once again all my life is behind me pushing (…)
Later on, presumably for dramatic tension, some of the characters struggle with this knowledge…
Years later, (…), it occurred to him that most of the times we are betrayed, it is by ourselves – by some part of the self impervious to the will, beyond will. That there was such a part of his “self” amazed and appalled him, and he wondered if it were really so.
” (…) no matter what you think you know, you can’t be sure of it. That’s what it means to be human. Our powers are finite, our ability to know is limited, and all our truths are relative.”
“(…) This determinism you believe in so strongly is just the model of the moment – (…)”
“(…) Physical models of the universe – they come and go. But the subjective reality of chance and uncertainty remains. And that’s what is important, isn’t it?”
But in the end, nowhere in the narrative does Robinson refute Holywelkin’s physics, and the music based on it manages to work its magic. Robinson’s own stance remains clear: free choice is indeed an illusion.
Each event (…) is determined by all the moments before and after it. And as we are nothing but aggregates of these events, our feeling that we exercise free will is nothing but an illusion of consciousness.
If you still need to be convinced of that, please read this paper here: it’s excellent. Or if you like it a bit lighter, watch Dan Ariely’s famous TED-talk.
KSR probably is my favorite author, but I cannot recommend this book as a place to start his body of work, not at all – pick Aurora instead. The Memory Of Whiteness had me bogged down after 60 pages, and my struggle to get to page 351 was boring work that didn’t pay off. If I had read it when I was at the end of my teens or in my early twenties, it might have made an impression. Today, I’m too saturated by its content matter. Even tired of it. I guess I’m just saying: your mileage may vary.
There’s one great line though… a line that will stay with me forever – the line that was worth the slog. I’ll pull it out as a kill-switch next time I end up in a discussion about free will again.
Why … why always has the same answer.
My other Kim Stanley Robinson reviews are here: The Wild Shore (1984) – Icehenge (1984) – The Gold Coast (1988) – A Short, Sharp Shock (1990) – Pacific Edge (1990) – The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) – 2312 (2012) – Shaman (2013) – Aurora (2015) – Green Earth (2015, the revised Science In The Capital trilogy (2004-2007)) – New York 2140 (2017) – The Ministry For The Future (2020) – The High Sierra: A Love Story (2022).
Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.
Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.
Huge fan of KSR here, and huge fan of your reviews. You bring a level of depth and intelligence to you reviews which are hard to find elsewhere.
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