I expect that most people will be familiar with the accounts from people who have temporarily "died" before recovering; impressions of travelling down a dark tunnel towards a bright light, of feeling that there are people at the other end. The theme of Passage is the exploration of such near death experiences – NDEs – to determine what causes them and what they mean. Two researchers in a hospital join forces. Joanna is interviewing everyone who experiences an NDE to find out exactly what they think they saw, while Richard is trying to induce artificial NDEs via drugs. Both are up against the influential Mandrake, an author who believes that NDEs are spiritual and indicate the entry to an afterlife from which messages can be sent back to the living. The story concerns the struggle of the researchers to collect and interpret their data.
This may sound rather mundane and not very science-fictional, and for much of the book there is some truth in that. In fact, it initially reads more like a medical drama (being heavy on medical processes and terminology), combined with incipient romance, until well into the second half when the plot takes an unexpected and dramatic turn. The remainder of the story is edge-of-the-seat stuff, in entirely new territory.
Connie Willis is a good writer who held my attention. However, this story is not without flaws. Chief among them is its inordinate length, at nearly 800 pages, which includes a lot of repetition. How many times do we need to read about Joanna and Richard's efforts to avoid Mandrake? How many stories from the ex-sailor Wojakowski must we hear? How many meetings with the young patient Maisie do we need? There were times when I was reminded of the film Groundhog Day. The plot proceeds with infinitesimal slowness for much of the book, and I did become rather frustrated with it. I think that it could have been drastically reduced in length without losing any of the plot or involvement with the characters, and it would have been better for it.
Furthermore, considering its length the characterisation is rather patchy. Joanna and Richard are rather sketchily drawn and Joanna in particular never really came alive for me. We are told very little about their private lives or why they are motivated to carry out this research. Conversely, some of the secondary characters are more clearly drawn, particularly Maisie, Wojakovsky and even the insufferable Mandrake.
Despite these complaints, Passage is a remarkable achievement. It is an original, daring, intensely atmospheric and powerfully imaginative work which is likely to remain with me for a long time.