Jul 26 2012 10:00am

Messages From Beyond Death: Connie Willis’s Passage

Passage by Connie WillisPassage (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.

1. Kadere
I bought this book on whim years ago, had never heard of Connie Willis but saw on the cover she was an award winner. Anyway, I read about half the book but once I realized the the entire book was just Willis taking it out on James Cameron for not being 100% accurate in his movie I threw the book across the room and haven't touched it since. I mean sure the research of near death experiences is fascinating, but the afterlife is just going to be Titanic? Yawn. And most of the book is really just complaining and complaining and complaining about everything Cameron got wrong. It was terrible slow, not very engaging, and had such an agenda I couldn't stand it. Haven't read anything else by her because of this book.
Lisa Grabenstetter
2. magneticcrow
I also really, really loved 'Passage'. The cold, isolated, strange feeling of Joanna trapped on the Titanic has never left me... It was described so viscerally, I honestly feel colder just thinking of the book. And Maisie... Let me just say, Willis is a master of writing children. She writes the sort of strange little believable termagents that I'd actually want to meet.

I was disappointed by the ending as well, but for different reasons at the time. The Christian iconography flew right the hell over my head... I thought the "wrap it up in a bow"-ness of the ship coming for her, and the contrived feeling romance between Richard and the teacher's niece was irritating, but now I feel a little furious. I can't believe I missed that. X(
Tad Ottman
3. T_Ottman
This is my favorite book by Willis and one of my all-time favorite books, despite the flawed ending. Maise's character and the shock of Joanna's death when and how it occured are vividly engrained on my memory.

The whole concept of NDEs and the difficulty of researching a real scientific phenomena while there are charlatans around trying to mystify and profit from it was extraordinarily well done. The Titanic imagery was also captivating and wonderful. Just a great book.
Robyn Oakes
4. shimmertree
I'm Christian, but crosses are not part of my religion (I know, *gasp*), so I didn't notice the overt Christian symbolism at the end either. But the end troubled me: if NDEs are just the brain trying to send a message, which was a huge plot point, then overtly Christian or not, what the heck was that ending? Are we to assume it was NOT an NDE, and therefore completely different from all the other Titanic moments she experienced? It would have made more sense to me to have her character arc end with her drowning when the Titanic sank, and having the world go black with the hospital crash cart noise in the background.

(Btw Jo, your re-read of Rothfuss was amazingly awesome.)
Pamela Adams
5. PamAdams
Passage may have been my first experience with a protagonist who dies in the middle of the book. Like you, I expected Joanna and Richard to get together and that Maisie would die. I think that Willis not only has patents on screwball comedy, but on the 'kick-in-the-teeth' plot twist.

It's one of the books that I don't re-read very often because I know what's coming.
Fade Manley
6. fadeaccompli
Huh. I did not notice the Christian symbolism in the last page at all. I read it entirely as...well, a very pretty image in line with everything else going on. Which is interesting, because I grew up on "Aslan is Jesus!" symbolism in other places.

But I think that's also because I read all of what was going on in Joanna's chapters as...well, not the afterlife. As what her brain went through in the few minutes between unconsciousness and death. Even though they were interspersed with other chapters that went on through time, I always read her post-death chapters as having all essentially taken place before brain death.

In any case, it's my favorite of all of Connie Willis's books, but one I can only read occasionally because I end up sobbing so much.
7. AwesomeAud
I like Connie Willis, I really do. The Doomsday Book may be the finest I've ever read. But both Passage and Black Out/All Clear were much longer than they needed to be. All that running around and detours and missed communications got pretty boring after a while. I know in Passage it was supposed to be a metaphor, but I almost gave up, and by the end of the book I was ready to scream. Ms. Willis needs a ruthless editor, not whatever pantywaist she's had for the last few books.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
For those who managed to miss it, I wish I could have. This is the bit where the Christian symbolism comes out and thumps you over the head with a mallet:
"I thought the Yorktown sank in the Coral Sea?"

"It did," Joanna said. She could see the wireless shack now, high up on the island, and the antennas, shaped like crosses. "And was raised again in three days."

... "Are we saved?" Helen asked, looking up at Joanna

... The sun came out, blindingly bright, gilding the crosses and the captain.
9. StrongDreams
Never read the book, though it sounds interesting, so I confess to being confused by the review and the comments about the ending.

Is Joanna a devout Christian throughout the book? In that case, the "saving" could be her final milliseconds of brain activity giving her an NDE that meets with her expectations and beliefs. But, the review never mentions her Christianity. Is it an element in the story?

Or, is the "saving" an authentic Christian afterlife experience after she has died? In that case, it seems to undercut the rest of the novel.

Is it meant to be ambiguous and thought-provoking, or is it a big honking authorial intrusion?

10. Tony Garnock-Jones
Have you read Greg Egan's "Permutation City"? I found it useful in giving an alternative interpretation of the end of "Passage", closely related to the "quantum suicide" thought experiment. I think it fits reasonably well, since we're after all explicitly following Joanna's subjective, internal experience.
11. lampwick
A lot of people seem to like all the confusion in Willis's novels, the characters running around and missing phone calls and messages and getting lost, but it just drives me nuts -- I want to scream at the book "Get on with it!" And Passages was the worst for doing this -- all the descriptions of the hospital and how things are laid out and how everyone gets lost. (Yes, I get that it was also symbolic.) If it's supposed to be screwball comedy -- which I like a lot -- all I can say is that the fifth or sixth time someone does it it really isn't funny.
Michael Poteet
12. MikePoteet
Wow, that's a pretty vehement reaction against (as I recall) the last sentence of a very long book. I thought Passage was a beautiful story, and while the Christian symbolism is undeniably there in the page you cite, it is along the lines of what C.S. Lewis did with Narnia, and even less so: one sentence that has an extra layer that Christians or those acquainted with Christianity might recognize, but that others (as #6 did) will pass right over. #8, bluejo: I don't have the book in front of me, but note your several elipses. You place any few details that close together without the intervening context, of course it's going to seem blunt.

Passage is a beautiful, tense, funny, intriguing, thought-provoking story, masterfully told. I think this review is a massive overreaction to a really very minor point.
Chuk Goodin
13. Chuk
I hated Passage way before the very end. All the Titanic stuff just seemed out of place, as did the afterlife theme in general. And the comedy of errors missed connections thing was amusing at first but went on way too long.
I had forgotten how good Maisie was though -- at the time I hadn't had as much experience with sick kids so I might give it a re-read based on that. Other than that, probably my second least favourite Willis. (I don't like Lincoln's Dreams much either, but with that one I can excuse it as a first/early novel, whereas by the time she wrote Passage I already knew she could do better.)
Pamela Adams
14. PamAdams
StrongDreams @9,

No, she isn't devout, and is witten as (in my opinion) agnostic. In fact, her funeral is in conflict with her and her friends' wishes, as her sister, who is devout, runs it to suit herself.
Bob Blough
15. Bob
I am a Christian and what I loved about Passage was the various styles of Christianity shown thoughout the book from the "Are you saved?" school to the "I'll make a pile of money of this" type to finally what I saw as the real kind at the end. That was the third point in the book I cried. But I can understand your aversion. As to your question about giving this to non genre readers to read - I get better responses to Doomsday Book - but all of those better responses have gone on to all the rest of her work. Passage is a favorite of some of them. People are always astounded that these books are considered "SF". It makes me laugh that it gets in under their radar.
Bob Blough
16. Bob
And by "real" I meant the basic tenent that we are headed to a greater place than humans can comprehend. No offense meant to any other religion, just speaking to my own kindred - Christians of every stripe and color.
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
If she'd been a devout Christian throughout the book, I wouldn't have felt that the ending sold her down the river. It's the jarring conflict of the character as she has been portrayed and this imposed stuff that distresses me.

I honestly don't mind things that have a Christian sensibility -- including other things by Willis. If that's the worldview of the novel, then it is, and I'm happy with that. Here it's not, until suddenly it is.
Cassandra Cookson
18. cass
This book frightened me the first time I read it. I think it was because at the time I read it, I was due to give birth in a few weeks. It wasn't death itself that was frightening, it was the sense of frantic panic that all the research subjects went through as they had their NDEs. I have to find the right combination, I have to find the way through, I have to find the right door etc. Joanna's realization that the lifeboats have gone and there is no way back and then later Maisie's rescue were both cathartic after all that panic and rushing around.

I agree with Jo that the ending does throw the reader out of the book. Joanna's death was a shock, but I read the ending several times thinking, now where did that come from and does it mean what I think it means?

Despite all that I still reread it and think it is one of her best books.

Jo Walton
19. bluejo
I've just realised that while it isn't what's ordinarily meant by deus ex machina, it literally is a deus ex machina ending. God shows up, everybody clap now.
20. dubsub
Passage is one of my all time favorite books. The Titanic metaphor is beautiful and cold and terrifying at the same time.
I have never been so shocked by a plot twist before, and I loved that there was still half the book to go.
21. S.M. Stirling
I've had a NDE; nearly drowned once, and had this sudden shift in perspective. I was outside myself, looking down at my (drowning) body, and thinking: "Oh, dear, I seem to be drowning", or words to that effect.

I felt very calm, and detached in more senses of the word than one; everything was bright, with saturated primary colors and extreme clarity.

Then I thought: "I should do something about this, I suppose" and -snap-, I was back inside, and feeling very bad indeed and quite stressed.

I was 10 at the time, but it never occurred to me to attribute this to anything but something going haywire in my brain under stress.
Joel Cunningham
22. jec81
I saw the imagery at the end but I certainly didn't interpret it as any kind of definitive statement. It was just another assemblage of familiar information thrown together by her dying brain. It clearly makes sense for her to be familiar with Christian symbols, and her mind produced one as it died. That doesn't mean, in my mind, Willis was trying to say anything concrete about the afterlife -- more that somehow, Joanna was able to accept her death, be at peace, and, perhaps, hope for what came after. I don't think the book ever leaves the NDE. Even a totally secular reading of the ending is very powerful.
23. Archergal
I read the book when it first came out, and not again since, for no particular reason. It's on my "read again some day" list.

I did like the book, but you're right, that kinda blatant Xtian symbolism at the end surprised me. I caught it immediately, just like all the symbolism in Narnia. But I was raised Southern Baptist, with lots of Bible study. That tends to sensitize one to this sort of thing.

I should read the book again.
24. Eliana
I thought of the ending as being akin to the Titanic visions... Joanna's brain using pre-existing images to make sense of what it was experiencing.

...and I took all the Joanna viewpoint chapters as running in a different timeline than the rest of the chapters after her death... with all of it happening as she died. ..with the very ending being ambiguous about Joanna's ultimate fate.

I can see, intellectually, how you are reading it, but, viscerally, I didn't experience that way... and I am grateful for that! It means this can remain one of my favorite books!

Re: reception by non-genre readers: This book and your Farthing were the tipping point for a close relative of mine that removed her disdain for genre and started her on a gradual discovery of some of the wonderful things to be found! So, yes, it works very well as a gateway drug...

25. Ulrika O'Brien
I dunno. I honestly thought the ending was still open to interpretation. A last message from the dying brain. It doesn't seem to me, even if you take the image as overtly Christian, that you have to take it as substantively real in any way, other than as an image Joanna experiences. I certainly closed the book feeling quite firmly that the book was agnostic on the subject of afterlife.
26. Rodericj
I don't think it's unavoidable to take the Christian imagery at the end so literally. I've never read anything else by Willis, so I have no idea what her religious views are. For me, the ending was much more ambiguous. Sure, the Christ imagery was laid on thick, but so had been 600 pages about confabulation and the stories of the WWII Pacific Theater veteran, from which Joanna would confabulate that final vision. In the world of death as imagined by Willis, it makes quite a bit of sense that just as our synapses create an SOS as the body seeks ways to survive, they also create a sense of rescue or salvation at the end. Is it Christ as Lord? It seems to me that Willis leaves it quite as likely that it is just "the last neurons firing, the last cells of the amygdala going out..." (p. 778, mass market paperback). But, at the end, when all is lost, why would the body keep sending out the desperate, frightened plea for rescue.? A benevolent Creator, or well-evolved neurotransmitters, would offer us a last solace before the night falls. The latter view seems to me to be perfectly consistent with the story that Willis tells.
27. wingfold
Im a Christian and I hated the end. What's the point of Christian imagery when the entire book has been nihilistic? It's insulting; I'm supposed to get all teary and feel inspired because there are 3 crosses and light? The rest of the book is so well written, but I just wanted Josnna to go ahead and die already. If death was the end of everything, just stop torturing the reader and get it over with.

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