Passage: a book review

Passage by Connie Willis

I recently re-read the classic science-fiction novel Passage by Connie Willis. Connie Willis is also the author of Bellwether, which I reviewed in 2013, but Passage is more of a tear-jerker than a comedy. Not surprising, given that the plot hinges on the scientific study of near-death experiences (NDEs). In particular, it is based on the idea that NDEs may be a survival mechanism, and that understanding them may therefore help to revive people who have (in hospital parlance) “coded.”

The Titanic is mentioned frequently in the novel. Here is her “Grand Staircase.”

This is one of my favourite novels – it is well-written, it has an interesting plot, and it has useful things to say about the nature of science and the nature of medicine. One piece of good advice, for example: “Joanna says you should only say what you saw, not what anybody else says you should see.” Indeed, the importance of truth is underscored repeatedly in the book. Thanks partly to a very young female patient with a strange taste in literature, there is also some interesting discussion of historical disasters, such as the sinking of the Titanic (1912), the Hindenburg disaster (1937), and the Hartford circus fire (1944).

The novel suggests that some aspects of NDEs are linked to activity of the temporal lobe (highlighted here in yellow)

I particularly like the way that (as with Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park) minor events early on are used as metaphors for the major themes of the book. For example, the architecture of the hospital in which the story is set is used as a metaphor for the three-part human brain: “It’s because Mercy General used to be South General and Mercy Lutheran and a nursing school, and when they merged, they didn’t tear out anything. They just rigged it with all these walkways and connecting halls and stuff so it would work.” In this use of architectural metaphor, the novel also resembles The Name of the Rose. But Passage is more than just clever – it also gives an honest (and, from personal experience, helpful) look at grief. I cannot give this novel less than five stars.

* * * * *
Passage by Connie Willis: 5 stars


World Solar Challenge: Hidden Valley

The TAFE SA solar car outside the Team Solaris workshop at Hidden Valley

The following World Solar Challenge teams (and possibly more) are ensconced at the Hidden Valley Raceway near Darwin. Other teams are based at various locations around Darwin (e.g. the Dutch teams), or are on their way north. Click the social media icons for more information.

Aliens: A Study in Leadership

The upcoming World Solar Challenge has turned my mind to teamwork and leadership again – since good leadership is essential to success in that event. James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is an excellent film for illustrating different leadership styles:

Lieutenant Scott Gorman, the incompetent leader

Lieutenant Gorman (played by William Hope) is completely out of his depth leading the mission in Aliens. Not because of any personal flaws, but simply through inexperience:

Ripley: How many drops is this for you, Lieutenant?
Gorman: Thirty-eight… simulated.
Vasquez: How many combat drops?
Gorman: Uh, two. Including this one.

Unlike incompetent leaders suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect, however, Gorman is at least aware of his limitations, and of the fact that his lack of experience is a problem – that is why he is nervous. In the film, he was chosen as leader precisely because of his inexperience, in order to facilitate…

Carter J. Burke, the sociopathic leader

Carter J. Burke (played by Paul Reiser) has an immoral hidden agenda. To achieve his ends, he is prepared to lie, to sacrifice the innocent, and to risk the human race itself. Such sociopaths are not unknown in the workplace. Fortunately, in the film, Burke is forestalled by…

Ellen Ripley, the emergent leader

Emergent leaders can be good or bad. When there are rewards to be had, the incompetent and/or sociopathic are often quick to volunteer:

Others refuse the weight of public service;
whereas your people eagerly respond,
even unasked, and shout: I’ll take it on.

(Dante, Purgatorio VI:133–135, tr. Allen Mandelbaum)

Incompetent leaders can turn victory into defeat by persuading an entire team to choose the wrong course of action, or by turning a team into a crowd of uncoordinated individuals. In moments of crisis, however, quietly competent individuals often step forward to fill a leadership vacuum. Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) is one of these good emergent leaders. She has both the technical knowledge and the interpersonal skills needed to turn the survivors into a unified team, fighting against an almost indestructible enemy. Eventually she hands over to…

Corporal Dwayne Hicks, the designated leader

Corporal Hicks (played by Michael Biehn) holds just about the lowest possible military leadership position, but the rules require him to step up when the commissioned officers and more senior NCOs have died. The buck stops with him.

Ripley: Well, I believe Corporal Hicks has authority here.
Burke: Corporal Hicks has…?
Ripley: This operation is under military jurisdiction, and Hicks is next in chain of command. Am I right, Corporal?
Hicks: Yeah… yeah, that’s right.

Hicks reveals his leadership abilities by the way he remains calm in the crisis, by his interactions with others, and by the way he relies on Ripley’s advice.

For a team to achieve success, either the powers that be must designate a competent leader like Hicks, or a competent emergent leader like Ripley must step forward. Otherwise, even though the team may not be eaten alive by hideous aliens with acid for blood, failure is nonetheless assured.