To be honest, I haven’t been all that impressed by Connie Willis’ books to date. However, I haven’t read very many of them, and specifically have not read the ones that are supposed to be her best, so I really don’t have a strong opinion on her books yet. Since Passage isn’t generally regarded as being among her best work, I’m also not too concerned by the fact that it… wasn’t all that hot.
It’s not that it has a bad plot, or bad writing. The plot (or basic idea, at least) is decent, and the characters are quite well-rounded. There’s a nice bit of dark humor thrown around, concerning the vast labyrinths that most modern hospitals tend to be (with the staff passing around “how to get from A to B” info like secret lore), and also concerning hospital bureaucracy in general. So what’s the problem? Simply, it’s way too long. At 800 or so pages, it could (and should) have been cut to about a third of that page count in order to present a well-paced story. As is, it feels padded and plodding, with the main characters repeating the same scenes (with only small variations) over and over again. It’s a bit of a chore to read.
The plot concerns one Joanna Lander, a medical researcher studying NDEs (Near Death Experiences). She thinks there may be something more behind them than random electrical signals of a dying brain; as a foil to her research there’s Maurice Mandrake, a shill and pseudo-researcher who manipulates his interviewees into shoring up his own view (and books) which has NDEs be view of a (Christian) afterlife, along with ghosts of dead relatives and all the usual stuff. Joanna’s research gets into high gear when she teams up with a scientist who has discovered a way to chemically trigger something like an NDE in patients (without actual “near death”). She finds she’s always seeing the same visions… and those visions have nothing to do with heaven and everything to do with something horrible and menacing.
It’s an interesting tale, as such, though as noted it’s much too padded with page count. It’s quite firmly based on science (speculative science, of course), though the end does leave some room for interpretation. This is no “Flatliners”, there are no horrible creatures summoned by Science Man Was Not Meant To Do here. There are just some researchers trying to find answers, and some side characters with links to NDEs.
As an aside, the cover of the edition I have (not the one pictured here) contains a stupid spoiler. The first third of the book concerns the small mystery of what Joanna’s visions actually are about. Well, the cover in question spells that out directly, spoiling the mystery before you even start reading. Duh. Way to do, idiots in charge of the art department. Sure, it’s not the major mystery here, but it is a plot point and spoilers are spoilers. They should not be on the book cover, ffs.