Passage by Connie Willis


What is it about the Titanic that still speaks to us, even now 100 years after the ship sank? The tragedy of needless loss of life? the gallantry of all those men who stepped back from the boats? the valiant efforts of the crew? the need for greater oversight of industrial and commercial safety procedures? There’s a message in it for us today, as there is in a good many events and works of literature.

Joanna Lander is a cognitive psychologist doing a study of people who’ve had Near Death Experiences, to determine whether the NDEs are a biological response to the process of dying or a transit to the afterlife. Richard Wright is a neurologist studying the neurological effects of the NDE by inducing pseudo-NDEs in volunteers. The two decide to work together several chapters into the book, after considerable initial confusion about the purpose of their research stemming from several reasons. They both distrust a spiritualist, Mr. Mandrake, who has written a number of bestsellers putting forth the religious view of the NDE debate, and each believe at first that the other is working with Mandrake. There’s considerable miscommunication between departments and individual staff members. The structural complexity of the hospital in which they work1 ensures that they keep missing each other, as quite literally “you can’t get there from here.”

Wright’s project doesn’t go well, even after the two connect. Lander removes a number of his volunteers from the eligibility list before they even get to the “gate” of going under dithetamine, as they’re True Believers in psychic phenomena, UFOs and other supernatural events, and presumably already ‘contaminated’ by nemesis Mandrake’s faulty interview techniques. Of the few remaining volunteers, some can’t recall or relay accurately what they’ve experienced, and some simply aren’t available. Their only moderately successful subject withdraws after a few sessions, claiming excess of schoolwork but showing evident signs of fear. Finally, Lander herself agrees to participate as a subject in the project on the theory that not only will she be able to more accurately describe what she experiences than non-medical professionals, but also having herself gained some knowledge of the NDE process will allow her to better phrase questions in a non-leading way when interviewing future participants.

For those who’ve groused about the needlessly complex tangle of hospital hallways, the needlessly repetitive failure of the pagers, trust me. They’re as important to the plot as the central image of Lander’s NDE experience2. Symbolism? Yep. Lots of it. But then that’s rather the point of the book: how desperately do we try to convey messages to one another, despite all the barriers that fate throws in our path? how often that message gets through despite insurmountable obstacles? At the risk of spoilers, not even death stops the transmission of information, if the impetus is strong enough.

If you’ve read more than a couple of Connie Willis’ books, you’ll spot all sorts of tropes, themes and character patterns from her previous books. Precocious and endearingly annoying child? check. Two scientists working on separate but complementary projects who decide to work together? check. Rushing from pillar to post in an attempt to communicate with phantasmic co-workers? Check. And so on. On the other hand, if you’ve read more than a couple of Connie Willis’ works then chances are you like her stuff and won’t mind as much as a novice reader.

Though I understand there are any number of readers who will give up a few chapters in out of sheer exasperation3, if you’re at all interested, stick with it. Willis swaps directions several times–she hasn’t got a particular agenda to prove in this book and so is neither woo-woo pseudoscientific or snarkily debunking of a theory. I particularly appreciate her decision to write the pivotal denouement as she did; not all authors are that brave. Just make sure you’ve got tissues at hand by about page 400, depending on the edition you’re reading.

1two hospitals and a nursing school cobbled together with a complex network of hallways, vaguely reminiscent of the human brain and neural network
2I’ll assume readers have figured out what that is by this point in my review.
3and promise not to be offended if people do give up

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