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


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Some beautiful photographs

Today, some pretty pictures from recent photographic competitions. First, the European Geosciences Union Photo Contest 2014. “Erosion Spider” by John Clemens was one of the winning entries:

Second, the BioMedCentral Ecology Image Competition. “A sticky snack for mice” by Petra Wester was the overall winner:

Finally, the Neuro Bureau Brain Art Competition 2014. “Heart of the Brain” by Chris Steele (MPI Leipzig) won the Best Visualization of Probabilistic Connectivity category:

All images used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND, CC BY, and CC BY-NC-SA respectively). Click images to zoom and/or read more about the photographs.