This is a new Connie Willis novel, and thus, it's nominated for a Hugo Award. Actually, we're set up for an Irresistible Force vs. Immovable Object steel-cage death match between this and Bujold's Curse of Chalion (which has the distinction of being the first book to appear in this book log). It's a rare year in which I read a majority of the Hugo nominees, and reading this will get me most of the way there, with The Chronoliths likely to finish the job. (I've been warned that Perdido Street Station probably isn't my thing, and I know that Ken MacLeod isn't, so it'll stop there). I've generally liked Willis's other work, so when this got the inevitable Hugo nomination, I bumped it to the top of the To-Read pile.
Rare as it is for me to read a majority of the Hugo-nominated novels, it's rarer still that I agree with the sort of review which says "This long novel would've made a nice novella." Guess it's my year for rare occurrances, because this long novel would've made a nice novella.
This was a tremendously frustrating book, but explaining why will require massive spoilers. On the off chance that you've managed to get to this review and still don't want to be spoiled, I direct you to my vague and general comments in the book log entry. I was sufficently disgusted with the way the plot of this book unfolds that I will shortly reveal absolutely everything that might be surprising about it, and say snarky things about it. You Have Been Warned.
The book is the story of Dr. Joanna Lander, a psychologist investigating near-death experiences (NDE's), who sets up a collaboration with Dr. Richard Wright, a neurologist who has discovered a way to simulate NDE's, and is convinced that they may hold the key to life-extending treatments. These are pretty much stock Connie Willis characters-- both funny, quirky, attractive, and perfect for one another, though they're too wrapped up in their work to notice. They're also placed in a trademark Connie Willis setting, a sprawling hospital so complicated that the difficulty of navigating its many corridors serves as a running joke of sorts. Their research subjects are quirky to the point of uselessness, so Joanna herself decides to become a test subject, and they proceed to plumb the mysteries of Life and (Near-)Death. Or something.
Joanna quickly begins to experience all the classic elements of the NDE: she's in a passageway of some kind, there's a strange sound she can't describe, and then a blinding light at the end of the passageway. She moves toward the light, and sees figures in the light, and hears voices. Everything feels completely real, and strangely familiar. There's some promise to the set-up, and for a little while the story has a nice horror-ish feel reminiscent of Willis's Lincoln's Dreams, which had a similar focus on dreams and visions.
Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that what she's seeing in her NDE visions is the Titanic. The passageway is a hallway on the ship, the figures in the light are passengers milling about on the deck, the sound is the sound of the ship hitting the iceberg. This is still nicely creepy and fairly entertaining stuff.
The book starts to come off the rails, though, when Joanna and Richard begin fretting about just what it means that she's seeing the Titanic in the NDE state. She's convinced that she knows the reason why, and what it all means, and that they key is something that was said long years ago by her high-school English teacher. At which point, everything stops, and the plot treads water for the better part of three hundred pages while she struggles to remember.
She keeps almost remembering what the important thing is, but something distracts her just before the epiphany comes. She hunts down the English teacher to ask him what it was that he said, but he turns out to have Alzheimer's, and is reduced to speaking in gnomic fragments. She befriends his niece, and they spend interminable page searching through books on the Titanic and old high-school English books looking for a clue, to no avail. This already slow plot is further padded out by the inclusion of a great deal of technobabble about neurotransmitters, and a series of increasingly tired jokes about the loopy psychic author of books about NDE's whose "research" plagues Joanna and Richard.
Finally, after nigh on three hundred pages, she grasps the crucial revelation. It's all a headline from The Onion. The visions of the Titanic are all a metaphor, see-- the slow sinking, the piecewise shutting down of critical systems, the frantic calls for help going unheard. It's a metaphor for the death process, as the brain slowly shuts down, all the while frantically sending out neurotransmitters trying to re-start the system. What's more, Richard turns out to be right-- if they isolate the appropriate neurotransmitters from the NDE state, they can kick-start the dying body, and save people who are near death.
Practically giddy from the thrill of discovery, Joanna goes running off to find Richard and tell him the news. She wanders around the hospital for a while looking for him, eventually winding up in the emergency room.
Where she startles a drug-addled ER patient with a knife, who stabs her and she dies.
Without telling anybody her great if trite discovery.
And then we're dragged through the whole damn thing again, as the surviving characters spend a hundred and fifty-odd pages re-tracing her steps and trying to find out what it is that she discovered just before she was killed. They eventually do find it, and it does turn out to provide a new treatment which saves the life of a cloyingly precocious little girl with a heart condition who had helped delay the advancement of the plot with her disaster obsession, but the process of getting there is so excruciating that it's hardly worth the pay-off. Worse yet, these scenes are intercut with an extremely drawn-out Actual Death Experience in which Joanna sinks with the Titanic, and ends up discovering that there is an afterlife of sorts.
The actual writing is, as one would expect from Willis, perfectly competent, and the book is enjoyable enough on an episodic level. The overall plotting is downright criminal, though. This really is a 780-page paperback with a 100-page novella inside crying to get out. In lieu of actual suspense, we get a long series of contrived and pointless events which drag the resolution of the plot out well beyond its natural span. I suppose I should be glad that she avoided the "Joanna and Richard fall in love and live happily ever after" cliche that the story seemed headed for, but the method she chose for dodging it is throw-the-book-against-the-wall awful.
I said above that this seems to have set up a gigantic clash between Willis and Bujold for Hugo supremacy, but this may well be a year when neither of them wins. Curse of Chalion is a fantasy novel, fantasy novels tend not to win Hugos (with a few exceptions). And, well, Passage just isn't very good at all.