Passage (novel)

infobox Book |
name = Passage
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = Cover of first edition (hardcover)
author = Connie Willis
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Science fiction novel
publisher = Bantam Books
release_date = 2001
media_type = Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
pages = 594 pp
isbn = ISBN 0-553-11124-8
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Passage" is a science fiction novel by Connie Willis published in 2001. It was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2001 and the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2002. It won the Locus Award for Best Novel in 2002.

Nominally a science fiction story, "Passage" concerns itself with the efforts of Joanna Lander, a research psychologist, to understand the phenomenon of near-death experiences by interviewing hospital patients after they are revived following clinical death.

A recurring theme in the novel is finding a path to one's destination in spite of obstacles. This theme manifests itself in the motif of the confusing and often blocked passageways in the hospital where Lander works, in Lander's struggles to communicate with and obtain information from others, and in Lander's attempts to contact the various participants in her research study.


Connie Willis's inspiration for "Passage" came in part from her mother's death, when Willis was 12. It frustrated Willis that relatives and friends tried to comfort her with platitudes, so she wanted to write a novel that dealt with death honestly and could help people understand the process of death and mourning. []

The character of Maurice Mandrake was inspired by Willis's anger at psychics and mediums who take advantage of vulnerable people. []

Plot Summary

Joanna Lander, a clinical psychologist, has been interviewing patients who have had near-death experiences, or NDEs, in an attempt to better understand what occurs when a person dies. She becomes frustrated when many of her patients stop giving accurate information about their experiences because of the influence of Dr. Maurice Mandrake, a persistent charlatan researcher who publishes books about near-death experiences and convinces patients that their experiences were exactly they way his books describe NDEs. Lander is contacted by Richard Wright, a neurologist who has discovered a way to induce artificial near-death experiences in patients and monitor their brain activity throughout, who asks if she will interview his patients after he induces NDEs.

After Lander and Wright struggle to find and keep volunteers for the study, Lander elects to undergo the process herself. She finds herself in a dark passage that, through further NDEs, she realizes is part of a dream-like version of the "Titanic", in which she encounters passengers of the real "Titanic" as well as people known to her who have died or are symbolically near death. Lander struggles to figure out why she sees the "Titanic", and she eventually tracks down Pat Briarley, her English teacher from high school, who spoke often of the "Titanic" in class. Lander discovers that Mr. Briarley, once a highly animated and keen teacher, now suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Lander also consults with Maisie Nellis, a young girl who suffers from a heart defect and is in need of a heart transplant, about her NDEs, as Nellis is one of the only of Lander's patients who still tells her accurate information about her NDEs.

Through talking with her patients and undergoing more NDEs, Lander realizes that the near-death experience is a mechanism that the brain uses to create a scenario symbolic of what the brain attempts to do when it is dying: find a suitable neural pathway by which to send a message that can "jump start" the rest of the body back into life. If the person having a real near-death experience can get a message through in the NDE, she found, the person will be able to awaken and survive.

Before she can tell Dr. Wright or anyone else about her discovery, she is stabbed by a patient affected by a drug called "rogue," in the emergency room. Before losing consciousness, she manages to say a few words to the people around her to try to communicate her discovery about NDEs. She finds herself in the Titanic again and attempts to figure out how to escape and awaken. Dr. Wright, on hearing that Lander was stabbed, enters an artificial NDE, thinking that he will find himself in the Titanic and be able to rescue Lander. He instead finds himself at the offices of the White Star Line, where the names of the victims of the "Titanic" disaster are being read to the public. He awakens many hours later and is informed by his assistant that Lander died.

As Dr. Wright and Lander's friends struggle with her death, Lander herself remains in the Titanic until it sinks. Her memories of life fade away.

Dr. Wright realizes that Lander was trying to tell him something before she died, and he attempts to track down all of the people she spoke to before she was stabbed. Dr. Wright comes to understand what Lander discovered, and develops a chemical treatment that he believes can bring a patient back during a real NDE. Maisie Nellis has another NDE during her heart transplant, and Dr. Wright uses his experimental treatment on her, with success.

Lander finds herself adrift on the water, her memories still intact. A rescue party finds her and welcomes her aboard their ship.

Characters in Passage

*Joanna Lander - A clinical psychologist who attempts to learn the true nature of near-death experiences through interviews with patients who have had NDEs.
*Richard Wright - A neurologist who has discovered a way to induce artificial NDEs and wants to discover a way to revive patients after clinical death.
*Vielle Howard - A nurse who works in the ER, and Joanna Lander's best friend.
*Maurice Mandrake - A charlatan researcher who has interviewed patients who have had NDEs, convincing them that their experiences were exactly as he describes in his best-selling books.
*Ed Wojakowski - An elderly man who volunteers for Lander and Wright's research study and claims to be a World War II veteran but is known to stretch the truth and fabricate stories.
*Maisie Nellis - A young girl who is often in the hospital because of her heart defect, who is waiting for a heart transplant. She has had NDEs and is a patient of Dr. Lander.
*Pat Briarley - Lander's English teacher in high school who spoke often of the events surrounding the "Titanic", who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.
*Kit Gardiner - Pat Briarley's niece, who has become her uncle's caretaker.


Willis includes elements of madcap comedy in the style and form of Passage, and links different events thematically in order to foreshadow later events. []

Reception describes Passage as "an emotionally exhausting trip" that is ultimately "a rewarding experience." []


The dream motif is reflected in her experiences in the hospital, a 3-D maze of buildings, bridges and passages created when two previously independent hospitals merged, where the task of getting from one location to another is frustrated by blockages caused by maintenance and perpetual repainting, not to mention the need to avoid human pests. Another is a patient who is all too ready to share his recollections of World War II, which change constantly, suggesting that he is a pathological liar. However, in a way that often occurs in a Connie Willis novel, it is these pests who help the researcher find a resolution to her puzzle. Unfortunately, just as she fully understands the nature of the near death experiences - and before she is able to inform anyone - she is stabbed by a patient affected by a drug called "rogue", in the emergency room.

An RIPT scan (the technique used to create the pseudo-NDE) is a procedure in which chemical tracers are used to "simultaneously [photograph] the electrochemical activity in different subsections of the brain for a 3-D picture of neural activity in the working brain". [cite book |last=Willis |first=Connie |authorlink=Connie Willis |year=2001 | title=Passage | language=English |pages=38 ] The fictional RIPT scan is not to be confused with the real-life PET scan, which is a similar procedure. The main difference between the two is that the PET scan uses radioactive tracers, whereas the RIPT scan uses chemical tracers. The reasoning behind this small improvement in the technology is that the author of the story needed a brain scan that could be performed repeatedly without harm to the patient. Hence, the creation of the RIPT scan.

Publication history

* First hardcover edition, 2001: Bantam Books, ISBN 0-553-11124-8.
* First paperback edition, 2002: Bantam Books, ISBN 0-553-58051-5.


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