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Passage
Connie Willis
HarperCollins Voyager UK, 594 pages

Passage
Connie Willis
Connie Willis was born in 1945 in Denver, Colorado. Her first SF publication was "The Secret of Santa Titicaca" published in Worlds of Fantasy, the Winter 1970-71 issue. For her first novel, she collaborated with Cynthia Felice on Water Witch. She has won Hugo and Nebula Awards for Fire Watch, "The Last of the Winnebagos," Doomsday Book and "Even the Queen," a Hugo Award for "Death on the Nile," and Nebula Awards for "A Letter for the Clearys" and "At the Rialto." To Say Nothing of the Dog has won the Hugo for Best Novel.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Miracle and Other Christmas Stories
SF Site Review: Nebula Awards 33
SF Site Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog
SF Site Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog
SF Site Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Connie Willis is the one of the most popular SF writers of our time. She is known for madcap comedy, indeed screwball comedy, in stories like "Blued Moon," "Spice Pogrom," and in her novel To Say Nothing of the Dog. But she is at least as likely to tug at the reader's heartstrings, in wrenching works like "The Last of the Winnebagos," "Daisy, in the Sun," "Fire Watch," Lincoln's Dreams, and Doomsday Book. When she is off her form, the comedy can seem forced and sometimes cruel, and the tragedy can seem manipulative and bathetic. But when she is on her form, her funny stuff is wonderful, and her sadder stuff truly moving. And she in on her form, in many readers' eyes, sufficiently often that she has won eight Hugos and six Nebulas.

Passage is her new novel, and it's fairly clear from the subject matter that it's an entry in her more serious mode. It concerns Near Death Experiences (NDEs), and the attempts of a couple of researchers to explain them as the reaction of the brain and body to the physical conditions of dying -- with a glimmer of hope that such understanding might even lead to a means of bringing more people back from the brink of death. As such, the book deals with several people on the verge of dying -- including some who have, as it were, been there and back.

The main character is Joanna Lander, a psychologist investigating NDEs at a Denver hospital. She is called whenever a patient "codes" -- suffers heart failure -- and if the patient is revived, she interviews him or her about the experience. Her cross to bear is a rival researcher, Maurice Mandrake, who has written a bestselling book asserting that NDEs involve a specific set of images including angels, messages from others who have died, etc., as well as asserting that they are essentially spiritual in nature. She finds him particularly frustrating because his leading questions tend to corrupt the memories of those patients whom he interviews before Joanna. Willis spends many pages in something like her madcap mode, detailing Joanna's attempts to find shortcuts through the maze that is the hospital, both in order to avoid Mandrake and to reach coded patients faster.

Then a new researcher, Dr. Richard Wright, enters the picture. He has a plan to simulate NDEs by introducing the same chemicals researchers have detected in the brains of dying patients into healthy patients. Mandrake, of course, thinks this folly, as it implies that NDEs are physical and not spiritual in nature. But Joanna, after some hesitation, agrees to help Richard. However, they run into problems recruiting appropriate subjects -- some turn out to be plants by Mandrake, who wishes to discredit the project; others turn out to be unreliable; some don't respond to the drugs. Worse, the experience terrifies one of the subjects, to the point that she quits. Finally, Joanna (rather unprofessionally, I thought) decides to become a subject herself.

This is about when the book, which begins very slowly, almost tediously, becomes interesting. Joanna's simulated NDE seems very real, and soon she realizes that what she experiences while she is "under" is a very real-seeming version of the Titanic, just as it is sinking. It's peppered with details which are apparently historically correct, but also with curious variances that come from Joanna's own life. So she, eagerly but fearfully, keeps going under, while trying to track down Titanic-related details, and trying to correlate the imagery of other NDEs with Titanic imagery. Then events take a wrenching turn, and the novel moves to its extended close, which mixes tragic events with some hopeful and optimistic discoveries.

I had some problems with this book. As I suggested earlier, it starts slowly, and it's too long. Willis' trademark habit of making some set of frustrating everyday-life details a recurring motif or running joke (in this case, the difficulty of navigating the hospital corridors, plus the never-open cafeteria) is over-extended here -- it becomes annoying. She doesn't quite manage to make Richard seem real, though the other characters are well-done. Some of the plot devices are implausible -- for example, would experienced researchers really believe that a man claiming to be 65 in the year 2000 was a crewman on the Yorktown at the Battle of Midway? And the big revelation Joanna finds, which drives the action of the final third of the novel, really doesn't seem that spectacular -- more just common sense. Indeed, the book really is only barely SF -- which isn't a complaint, just an observation.

On the other hand, after the slow start, the story becomes quite involving, and if I felt just a bit manipulated by some of the plot turns, I was still genuinely moved, and shocked at the right time, excited at other times, in tears by the end. The passel of characters surrounding Joanna -- Maisie Nellis, the dying girl who is fascinated by disasters; Mr. Wojakowski, the loquacious old veteran; Kit Brierly, the haunted niece of Joanna's old high school teacher and Titanic expert; Vielle Howard, Joanna's best friend and an ER nurse -- are engaging people, and we feel for them and root for them. If the book turns on a scientific discovery which seems kind of minor, or at least obvious, that may just be my SF reading protocols misleading me. At any rate, while this isn't a perfect performance, nor is it Willis' best work, it's a worthwhile and moving novel.

Copyright © 2001 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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