Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What We're Reading--more Titanic!

In the midst of all the mania surrounding the 100-year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, there's a science fiction book on the subject that you shouldn't miss, if you're as fascinated by the details of that fateful voyage as are so many others. It's Passage, by Connie Willis, one of my favorite science fiction authors. This book is and is not a departure for her; most of her other writings are based in history. For instance, her Doomsday Book details time travel back to the years of the Black Plague in Oxford, England, while her latest works, Blackout and All Clear, take place during the Blitz in the London of World War II (also encompassing time traveling historians from the future, come to study the period).

For the first 248 pages (yes, it's a long one) of Passage, there is no historical component to this book. We follow the daily trials of a cognitive psychologist, Dr. Joanna Lander, as she studies the phenomena of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) at Mercy General Hospital by interviewing people who have "coded" or "flat-lined" and have been brought back, and charts the details of their experiences "in between." Her personal nemesis is Maurice Mandrake, who has written a popular best-seller on NDEs and the afterlife, and corrupts her interview subjects by beating her to the patients and asking them leading questions to validate his own conclusions. (He's writing a sequel.) By the time Mandrake is through with them, he has them convinced they have all seen the same things--the Life Review, the tunnel, the bright light, the angels and loved ones welcoming them to Heaven--and Joanna can't get an accurate account. So when a newcomer to the hospital, Dr. Richard Wright, approaches her to combine their efforts, she jumps at the chance.

Wright is a neurologist conducting research to establish that NDEs are actually a survival strategy of the brain, and that understanding the brain functions of the dying may be the key to preventing premature death. His study involves a drug protocol combined with brain scans, in the attempt to reproduce the NDE in volunteers. (Not like the movie Flatliners, where the main characters actually stopped their own hearts, but simply by reproducing it chemically.) When several of his study volunteers are disqualified (a couple of them are spies for Mr. Mandrake) and several more have to drop out, Dr. Lander proposes that, in addition to working with Dr. Wright, she also be one of his subjects. She is, after all, not predisposed to see the standard/typical markers during an NDE--quite the contrary--and is both scientifically neutral and motivated to succeed. But what she discovers as a result is fascinating, frightening, and ultimately revelatory about the passage from this existence to the next.

I hear you thinking, Um, what about the Titanic? What do studies of NDEs (whether natural or drug-induced) have to do with an ocean liner that sank in 1912? Well...I'd love to tell you, but it would completely ruin the rest of the story! If you read reviews of this book (on Amazon.com or wherever), you will notice that no one even mentions this aspect, and I am teetering on the edge of spoiler by doing so. But there was no other way to recommend it from the context of the 100-year anniversary of the great disaster. Let's just say that the title is a triple entendre, and you want to know about all aspects of Passage.

The book is available in the Science Fiction section at the Buena Vista and Northwest branch libraries.

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