Robinson is well known for his best-selling Mars trilogy from the eighties. I enjoyed reading about those imaginary Martian settlers, and I've read his later work , The Years of Rice and Salt, Forty Signs of Rain, and recently, Fifty Degress Below.
With each book he's become less connected to the indivuals, the rich inner life, that made the Mars trilogy so special. The Memory of Whiteness was written after Green Mars, in 1996. The inner narrative is so detailed and textured as to be overwhelming. It is the story of Johannes Wright, 9th master of a unique musical instrument that allows one man to play an entire orchestra. Wright is touring the solar system (an incredibly advanced solar system, in which near unlimited energy has allowed the creation of hundreds of individual worldlets) with the Orchestrina from the outside in; as the tour approaches Earth, Wright begins to understand the secret purpose of the instrument's designer (a famous physicist who equations, much like Einstein's today, define the shape of society.
As Wright approaches his moment of insight, rumors increase that he is targeted for assassination by an extreme religious group. Friends and colleagues try to protect him, but someone in their midst seems to be involved.
The subtitle A Scientific Romance is perfectly apt; Wright is a Byronic hero, doomed (DOOMED!) to gain knowledge that will destroy him. Robinson uses an interesting device (author intrusion!) addressing the reader and directly invoking the imagination in description of the spacescapes and of certain emotional moments....I liked it, but it could be a turn-off for some. Reminds me a bit of Brust's The Phoenix Guards.
Original and engaging. But the conclusion left me unsatisfied. What is the answer to 'life, the universe, and everything'? I suppose Robinson couldn't satisfactorily answer that within the confines of a novel. But Wright's descent into wordlessness as he enters more fully into his musical world excluded me as well as his companions.