Messages From Beyond Death: Connie Willis’s Passage

Passage (2001) is a very difficult book for me to write about. I love it, right up until the last page, where it makes me furiously upset.

This is the fourth time I’ve read Passage, and apart from my problems with the very end it would probably be my favourite Willis book. It’s about people who are researching near death experiences, and it’s mostly a very brave book. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that people die and those who are left grieve. People sometimes die unexpectedly, in the middle of doing things, and children die and young adults, not just old people at the end of long lives. In Passage, like Doomsday Book, Willis uses a screwball comedy plot in the service of tragedy, and here Willis’s theme of misdirected communication is central and vital and drives the plot.

No spoilers yet, spoilers indicated as we get to them.

The central character of Passage is Joanna Lander, PhD, a medical researcher. The first half of Passage is all about Joanna rushing around trying to research near death experiences (NDEs) in a large and badly laid out American hospital. She’s avoiding Mr Mandrake, a charlatan who believes NDEs are a glimpse of the afterlife and who contaminates Joanna’s research subjects. She has a pager and an answering machine full of messages. She starts working with Dr Richard Wright who is inducing NDEs in volunteers using an advanced brain scanning technique. Joanna becomes a volunteer, and has NDEs of her own, in which she realises she’s appearing on board the Titanic.

It’s the NDE research that makes the book SF — Joanna and Richard are scientists investigating a phenomenon, with the eventual hope of finding a way to help more people survive. The whole thread about the Titanic and Joanna trying to work out what it means is fascinating. I suspect that the annoying kind of reader who is determind to read genre books as if everything fantastic is metaphorical could happily read this that way — because it is all induced visions after all. This could be quite a good book to give to a newcomer to genre, because while they’re just like real scientists, applying for grants, having to vet their volunteers, trying not to theorize ahead of the data, they’re in the present day, and in a familiar hospital setting. They’re very human people and very solid characters. I’d be interested to see what someone who doesn’t read genre makes of this. Anyone tried it on their family members?

Minor spoilers now!

The book has all of Willis’s characteristic themes, except the lack of violence. Mandrake is an antagonist but more of a nuisance than a real threat. History manifests itself with the disasters — not just the Titanic, but Wojakowski’s stories about Midway and the War in the Pacific and Maisie’s disaster stories — the Hindenberg, the circus fire. The story is contemporary, or possibly supposed to be set a year or two ahead of the 2001 publication date, but history is all through the book. Telephones and missed messages are central, and part of the central theme of the book. Joanna’s revelation is that NDEs are the brain trying to reroute a message to wake up, and the whole confusing hospital and message theme is in service of that here, helping to reinforce and underline all of that.

Huge Honking Book Destroying Spoilers From Here On!

Joanna is a complicated and sympathetic character in the middle of her life. She has a best friend. Vielle, who works in the emergency room, with whom she watches movies. She has an ongoing friendship with Maisie, a little girl with heart problems who is obsessed with disasters. (The way Willis writes about Maisie we’re being primed to expect her death — she’s a very realistic but adorable kid, in and out of hospital.) Joanna also has high school friends she’s still slightly in touch with, and a high school teacher with Alzheimers. She has a sister she isn’t close to. She’s always missing meals because she’s so busy. She likes Richard, and it really looks as if we’re being set up for a Bellwether style romance between them. It’s therefore really shocking when she dies half way through and the book goes on, and even goes on having chapters from her point of view, after her death. Joanna’s death is by violence, a drug addict in the ER. I think this is the only personal up close violence and certainly the only violent death, in all of Willis.

Willis’s writing about Joanna’s death is terrific, both Joanna’s experiences after death and everyone else’s experiences with grief and life going on. She gets the way people come out with infuriating religious claptrap like “Was she saved?” and the way well meaning people press excruciating self-help books about dealing with grief on you. The horrible funeral, with the sister and Mandrake taking central roles, is teeth grindingly appalling, in exactly the kind of way these things are. They’re such realistically awful people. Willis also deals brilliantly with Maisie around this — Maisie’s mother lies and tells her Joanna has moved to New Jersey without saying goodbye, which leaves Maisie heartbroken and furious, such that when she finds out the truth it’s a relief. Death and betrayal are different things. The chapter from Maisie’s point of view after she has been lied to is one of the best things Willis has ever written, and it never fails to have me in tears. Willis is both realistic and funny about the whole thing, which is a real achievement.

Once we’re into this section of the book, I guess we have to define it as fantasy, because we have Joanna’s experiences on the Titanic and beyond, interspersed with her funeral, Richard’s ongoing research, Maisie’s health crises and so on. This is a very odd thing to do — I can’t think of anything else at all that does this except for Huxley’s Time Must Have a Stop, and Passage does it much better. Again we have a signature Willis trope here of having two separate stories that build together, and it works extremely well. Joanna’s post-death experiences are strange and interesting, and the real world portion of the book also remains good, and saving Maisie’s life — and Maisie’s acknowlegement that it was really Joanna who saved it — is all terrific.

And now I can’t avoid it any more, we’re up to the thing that makes me want to bite someone. (Please don’t tell me it’s only a book and I’m not supposed to care that much, it’s not as if it’s real. People have told me this before, and it didn’t help then either.)

At the very end, after the Titanic and all the weird and effective stuff, Joanna and a child and a dog are rescued by a ship, which would make a splendid ending if it stayed mysterious. But Willis can’t resist filling it with huge clumping Christian symbolism — it’s the Yorktown, which explicitly rose again in three days, and the masts look like crosses shining in the sun. I hate this with incandescent nuclear fire, because it’s exactly the same betrayal of Joanna as her funeral was with its smug Christianity. It’s handing her over to Mandrake and her sister all over again. It’s forcing one religion and one interpretation down our throats. It’s the answer to the wrong question. It’s a “happy ending” that stuffs everything into a box and does a bait and switch. Doomsday Book has explicitly churchgoing Christian characters and a pile of Christian imagery and I don’t mind that at all. It’s the fake-out that upsets me, the “gotcha” right at the end.

Joanna Lander deserves better than that, and the book deserves better than that. If I didn’t like the rest of the book so much I wouldn’t feel so betrayed by the end. Gah.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning and Hugo nominated Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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