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Passage by Connie Willis
Review by John Berlyne
Bantam Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0553111248
Date: 01 May 2001 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Connie Willis has probably got the most impressive mantelpiece in the field of science fiction. She must put all those awards somewhere! This is a writer who has won more Nebulas than anyone else, six Hugos and the John W. Campbell memorial award and that is just so far! And the most wonderful thing about all this is that Willis is still very much in her prime - as can be seen from her latest novel Passage, published this month in the UK from HarperCollins Voyager.

This cleverly titled story deals with a sombre subject - the great question of what (if anything) happens to us when we die. Cognitive psychologist Joanne Lander is studying Near Death Experiences (NDE's) in a Colorado hospital. Her task is to interview patients that have been revived and record their testimonies. She's a conscientious scientist with a compassionate and objective interest in fathoming the mysteries of this phenomenon and her task is made all the harder by the presence in the hospital of Maurice Mandrake, the world famous author of Light at the End of the Tunnel. Mandrake is present as a guest of the hospital board and is conducting his own research for his next book. He has a talent of reaching the revived patients before Lander does and to her frustration, imposing his own spiritual and religious interpretations of the NDE onto them. If they weren't already, by the time Mandrake leaves them, they're convinced they saw the whole shebang - Jesus, angels, the Pearly Gates etc. This leading of the subjects renders them all but useless for Joanna's research.

Bang on cue, enter Dr Richard White, also at the hospital conducting research. He has developed a technique for simulating NDE's using psychoactive drugs in a controlled environment and though it takes a little persuasion, he recruits Joanna onto his team, thus giving her the chance to study the phenomenon without having her work polluted by Mandrake.

This then, is the meat of the novel. We follow this team through their teething troubles and as finding suitable subjects for this research proves so difficult, Joanna decides the obvious solution is to go under herself. I'll stop talking about the plot from hereon as I'd hate to spoil it for you. However, as the main metaphor in this novel is splashed all over the cover, I'm not giving anything away by saying that if, like most people, you are fascinated by the story of the Titanic, you'll find that Willis weaves it into her novel quite beautifully.

In terms of Willis's canon, Passage is much nearer in tone to Doomsday Book than the more overtly comic feel of To Say Nothing of The Dog. That is not to say this one does not contain any of the author's trademark humor - the opening chapters describing the confusions of working in a labyrinthine hospital are hilarious and the prose is as bouncy and readable as anything by Willis. The antithesis of this comes in Willis's ability to move us greatly when tackling the darker aspects of this subject. Her depth of thought and feeling, philosophical and emotional will have you pondering the subject for yourself deep into the night.

Passage is peppered throughout with quotes of "famous last words" and fascinating anecdotes on the subject of death and what comes after it. I was particularly taken with the story of Lavoisier - who sentenced to death on the guillotine "...had proposed an experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis that the beheaded retained consciousness after death. [He] had said he would blink his eyes for as long as he retained consciousness and he had. He had blinked twelve times."

Passage is an almost entirely character driven novel - with one obvious exception there are not too many action sequences or cataclysmic events. Rather this is a consummate example of a writer giving us beautifully drawn characters of believable humanity and allowing us to share in their experiences. Once or twice I felt the story settled a little too much and I longed for a gear change, but most of the time, Willis keeps the ball in the air and thus held my interest along with it. It is long book - but it doesn't feel so and at nearly six hundred pages, it is an astonishingly quick and extremely enjoyable read. Recommended.

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