Near Death Experiences. Disasters. The Titanic. Mazes and Mirrors. Metaphors. Messages. Confabulation. Identification.
Passage is another Connie Willis novel that needs to be read by the heart as well as by the head. The winner of the 2002 Locus Science Fiction Award as well as a nominee for four other major awards, Passage is a science fiction novel that deals with near death experiences. It is also a novel about the vulnerability of human beings to the “disasters of life”: disease, accident, old-age, violence, and the loss of a loved one.
Briefly, Dr. Joanne Lander studies near death experiences through interviews. She is approached by Dr. Richard Wright, who has found a way to simulate near death experiences through the use of a drug, to collaborate on a study. When they run into some problems finding appropriate subjects for the study, Joanne offers to go under using the drug. Her simulated NDE convinces her that NDEs have some purpose, and she becomes obsessed finding out what that is. Richard looks at NDEs only in terms of the neurology and biochemistry. Their combined preoccupations lead to tragedy as well as triumph. The story includes interesting secondary characters, including Lander’s best friend who works in a dangerous ER, a precocious girl with a heart condition and a love of disasters, Joanne’s old high school teacher who has Alzheimer’s and his niece/caretaker.
I admit that I sometimes find myself becoming impatient with Willis’s books: “Can we just get to the point?” She seems to be repeating very similar scenes over and over again. In the case of Passage, the characters come very close to finding out an answer and then something thwarts them at the last minute. In some ways this plot style is similar to watercolor painting in which layers of paint are put down in order to achieve an effect. Willis uses repetition to help create emotion. This may help explain why reading her books is so cathartic for me. I had a couple of good sobs while reading Passage. Since finishing the book last night, I have found some of the scenes replaying in my head. Willis is one of my favorite authors.