Passage by Connie Willis
(Published in the US by Bantam, $23.95, 594 pages, hardback; May 8, 2001. Published in the UK by HarperCollins Voyager, £11.99, 594 pages, trade paperback, 18 June 2001; £6.99, 780 pages, mass market paperback, 20 May 2002.)
This year, in addition to the normal Hugos, they're running the Retro Hugos, awards designed to acknowledge the finest work done 51 years ago, in 1950. Reading through the lists of nominees, one is surprised at how long ago some of one's favourite fictions were published: they have a powerful persistence in one's emotional memory, so that they seem perpetually to have been written just a few years ago. If the organizers repeat the exercise of the Retro Hugos in the year 2042 it is assured that one entry on the appropriate shortlist will be Connie Willis's Doomsday Book (1992), an sf novel that not only shows both exquisite humanity and an intimate knowledge of the way that real scientists go about their business but also -- rarely for a genuine sf novel -- transcends all genre limitations, being loved by the "I don't understand science fiction so I don't like it" brigade as much as by the aficionado.
At first glance Passage looks set to repeat that major achievement: it is entirely accessible to any reader yet is certainly science fiction, while at the same time it has enough of the feel of fantasy to be readable as a technofantasy. By any standards it is a major novel -- and I would certainly recommend it to all readers, whether sf devotees or not -- but for reasons that I hope will become clear it is by far the lesser of the two books.
The plot goes thus. In Mercy General Hospital, which suffers from an Escher-like construction due to architectural modifications over the years and constant repair work in the now, psychologist Joanna Lander is conducting research into the near-death experience (NDE) through interviewing patients who have successfully been brought back from the brink. Her days are plagued by the presence in the hospital of anti-scientific "researcher" Maurice Mandrake, author of the bestselling Light at the End of the Tunnel, who spends much of his energies getting to NDE survivors first and persuading them (through the phenomenon that is known in dream research as "reading back") to remember their NDE as containing all the elements that bolster his own religious bigotry -- Heaven, Jesus, the dearly beloved dead, angels and you name it. Obviously such survivors become useless as case studies for Joanna after Mandrake's interventions, because they quite genuinely believe they have experienced all the baloney he has implanted in their memories.
(Infodump. "Reading back", first isolated by researchers under the aegis of the Society for Psychical Research -- which in its heyday was as scientifically rigorous as many another more revered 19th-century organization -- is responsible for many, probably most, accounts of precognitive dreams. The phenomenon works like this. You might dream that ex-President Clinton drowned in his swimming pool. A few days later, President Bush trips over his own feet and breaks his neck. Because of the points of similarity in the two events -- president, death -- you will remember your dream as one of Bush breaking his neck; especially if there's a further coincidence such as Bush having been playing pool at the time of his accident. In no way will you be consciously doctoring your memory of the original dream; what seems to be the case is that the subconscious does its best to match the dream with the real-life event, and this comes into your conscious as a true memory. Not enough research has been done into this fascinating phenomenon, which is a form of auto-suggestion. You can, however, watch it at dramatic work yourself by keeping a dream diary over a period of weeks: have paper by the bedside and write down what you can remember of your dreams as soon as you wake. Sooner or later something will happen in real life that echoes a dream, and you'll find yourself thinking that you've had a precognition. By checking back in your dream diary you will see where that feeling came from, and quite how inaccurate the similarities are.)
Into this situation comes neurologist Richard Wright, who has isolated a psychotopic drug that can be used to simulate the NDE. Richard recruits Joanna to his research, and they get a few good results from volunteers. Then, however, a concatenation of circumstances dictates that Joanna herself should become a volunteer, despite Richard's profound reservations.
She discovers that some of the elements of the NDE trumpeted by the hated Mandrake are genuine, as was already indicated by the interviews she has conducted. Typically, her NDE starts with herself in a tunnel, at the end of which is a light. Over the course of several experiments, she reaches that light and progresses through the doorway it represents; however, she finds herself not in Heaven but aboard the Titanic scant hours away from its doom. Waking researches indicate that what she witnesses during her NDEs accord with the historical reality rather than with any cultural contaminants that might have affected her, such as watching the movie Titanic; yet of course there's always the possibility that she's mentally regurgitating historical accounts she might have read but forgotten having done so (approximately the Bridey Murphy syndrome). Even so, there's independent evidence that other NDE survivors have likewise found themselves aboard the Titanic.
Theories spark between Joanna and Richard much as love sparks between them (and it does). The sinking of the Titanic -- or any other major disaster -- might be an analogue of the physiological disaster that is death; the subconscious, seeking to represent the process of the organs one by one giving up the struggle, might use the Titanic disaster, in close detail, as a symbol. Alternatively, the despairing signals that the Titanic sent out until the final moments before foundering could be seen as analogues of the dying body sending out desperate SOS messages.
The truth turns out to be stranger than that.
There is lots to love about this absorbing novel; you will find yourself reading later into the night than you would wish. Yet it suffers some serious flaws -- really, a surfeit of manifestations of a single serious flaw.
Maurice Mandrake is a bore and a philosophical bigot. Joanna spends much of her time trying to avoid meeting him; sometimes she is unsuccessful in this. She also tries to avoid the volunteer Wojakowski, booted out of her and Richard's program when they discover he's a compulsive (but unwitting) liar; his main character trait is to force his largely fictional war reminiscences on all listeners, however reluctant. Then there's Maisie, the cute kid forever on the edge of death whose hobby is historical disasters; she is a master of the art of prolonging conversations with anyone she likes. And finally there's the insane architecture of the hospital, which involves Joanna (and Richard, the other focus character) having to make protracted calculations every time she wants to get from A to B.
The trouble with portraying boring, tedious characters and circumstances is that in order to convey the boredom and tedium you have to show them being repeatedly boring and tedious ... and Willis spends a great deal of her time, certainly fifty and possibly a hundred pages, doing exactly this. Mandrake might be a comic cut to start with -- likewise Wojakowski -- but soon one begins to dread his every appearance. Maisie is in so many ways an adorable character, but even so one begins to tire of her company; she's the kid you babysit for whom you initially love for her inventive ways of putting off bedtime but eventually get heartily sick of. The calculations of navigation around the Escherian hospital pall especially rapidly.
All of these tedia formed an interesting false theory in the mind of this reviewer: that the denouement would be that Joanna was suffering an NDE from the novel's very outset, and that her NDE took the form of an anxiety dream -- one of those dreams in which one is eternally entangled in seemingly meaningful pointlessness, and is constantly in the thrall of frustration. To partially reiterate, anxiety dreams are pretty tedious to experience and even more so when recounted by others.
Luckily Willis is an extremely fluent writer; in less deft hands than hers this composite flaw might see the book being thrown at the nearest wall or snored over, but she just about manages to carry one through these frequent scenes of boredom because of her sheer facility -- and because the other elements of the novel are so completely fascinating. Coming to the end of reading Passage is like having eaten a superbly planned and cooked meal that would have perfectly satisfied you -- a delightfully memorable feast -- except that some dolt added dodgy french fries, which have both somewhat overfilled you and spoiled the experience as a whole. One wishes Willis's editor had been a bit stricter.
Overall, though, this is a joyously good book, and you will not regret having embarked upon it.
Passage is also reviewed elsewhere in infinity plus in Adam Roberts' round-up of Arthur C Clarke Award nominees.
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© John Grant 19 May 2001