Connie Willis’s Honest Look at Death
Recent articles about the great science fiction author Connie Willis tend to start by pointing out that she is simultaneously two things: first, the most highly decorated science fiction author of all time; and second, virtually unknown to the broader book-reading public of today. Willis has eleven Hugos and seven Nebulas, yet Esquire’s 2022 list of the “50 Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time” could not find space for a single Willis novel. Granted, the Esquire list is very silly, even by the inane standards of internet ranked lists—it somehow ranks the perfectly-enjoyable-but-hardly-earth-shattering The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet a full eighteen places above A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is one of the most beautiful works of science fiction ever written, and also inexplicably manages to exclude anything by Gene Wolfe, whom Ursula K. Le Guin once called “our Melville”—but there still seems to be a disconnect between these two facts. How did this happen?
Perhaps it is because, as Lyta Gold suggested in Current Affairs, Willis’s works “have plenty of drama and speculative technology, but few fight scenes and badass heroes.” Perhaps it is because Willis maintains almost no internet presence, which surely throws up barriers to commercial popularity in our age of BookTok. Or perhaps it is simply because nothing is ever less popular today than whatever was popular a week ago, and Willis’s heyday was the ’90s and early 2000s. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame: Connie Willis is very good. Her best work is witty, exciting, informative, satirical, profound, romantic, and, frequently, heartbreaking. (A partial list of things Connie Willis has made me cry about includes Robert E. Lee’s horse, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the mantra of an annoying handbell choir, a vampire in the Blitz, the altar cloth at Coventry Cathedral, a Winnebago, and an aircraft carrier.)
As the above list should indicate, Willis writes about a lot of different things, but she has several recurring preoccupations or tropes in her work: a deep love for history; dialogue and story structure that come, for better and sometimes for worse, straight from the screwball comedies of the 1930s; hardworking scientists being thwarted by bureaucracy; the inability of human beings to ever actually just talk to each other; a fondness for running gags that turn on their heads to become moments of rare beauty; and a particular preoccupation with the Blitz, which provides either a setting or an impetus for the plot of several of her books.
But for all this, there are two themes deserving of special mention that run through nearly all of Willis’s best work. First, the practice of science, and second, the inevitability of death. By the first I mean that Willis’s heroes are often scientists, historians, or other researchers who are faced with a capital-M Mystery with potentially life-threatening consequences, and her stories follow these people as they form hypotheses, test them against the facts, reformulate them to better fit darkest reality, and eventually discover what is going on and how to avert or at least cope with its consequences. So in Blackout/All-Clear, time-traveling Oxford historians have to figure out why their usually reliable time machine has stranded them in the London Blitz; in All Seated on the Ground, a newspaper columnist and a church choir director have to figure out what, exactly, a group of stoic aliens want and why they only seem to respond to certain Christmas carols.
This means that many of Willis’s novels have an oddly bottom-heavy structure. Often, two-thirds of the story will putter along with the characters chasing their tails before the final third suddenly clarifies the Mystery and drives the action forward in a hectic rush. For example, while most genre-savvy readers will have figured it out from the title page, the characters in Doomsday Book—who have sent a colleague back to the fourteenth century on a research mission—don’t actually confirm that a time-machine mishap has landed her in the middle of the Black Death instead of her safer intended target date until page 386 of 578. This can occasionally be very frustrating for the reader (to say nothing of the beleaguered characters), but the payoff—the moment in almost every Willis book when all the little details she has seeded throughout the story finally bloom into a surprising and beautiful picture—is worth it. (Almost every Willis book, mind you: She does occasionally misfire, as in Crosstalk, a clumsy exploration of the premise “what if phones, but too much.”)
When I was twelve, my mother died suddenly and shatteringly, and my world fell completely apart, and I had nobody to turn to but books.
And they saved my life.
I know what you’re thinking, that books provided an escape for me.
And it’s certainly true that books can offer refuge from worries and despair . . .
But it wasn’t escape I needed when my mother died.
It was the truth.
And I couldn’t get anyone to tell it to me.
Willis recounts the horrible platitudes foisted upon her by well-meaning family and friends—lies like “There’s a reason this happened” and “God never sends us more than we can bear”—and how she only found succor in authors who looked death squarely in the eye without flinching. “Time heals nothing,” Peter De Vries tells her. “Never try to explain to yourselves why some things happen and why other things don’t happen,” went a line from Robert Sheckley. “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end,” begins a quotation from C.S. Lewis, but he continues: “If you look for comfort, you will not get either comfort or truth.”
And so, in Doomsday Book, Willis pulls no punches when her time-traveling historian encounters the devastations of the Black Death. It is an inexplicable horror—not a punishment from God, but an absurdity in Camus’s sense. The historian can do nothing to stop it, but, immune to the plague itself, she can draw close to the afflicted, comfort them, and bear witness to their suffering as they all die, leaving her alone in their village. Her actions make no difference; they make all the difference in the world.
Risking controversy, I will here say that Willis’s best work is her 2001 novel Passage. It is certainly the novel that best exemplifies each of the recurring themes and preoccupations mentioned above; in an interview, she stated that she aspired, in writing it, to the same honesty about death and loss that she found in the writers she read in the wake of her mother’s death. To get down to what is really special about Willis and about this book specifically, I am going to recklessly spoil it for you in the sacrificial hope that you will read it anyway, or at least some of her other work.
Passage is about a team of scientists working at a hospital in Denver who are researching near-death experiences (NDEs). The primary science-fictional element is that one of them has developed a drug that can trick the brain into undergoing an NDE without putting the body into danger. When they can’t get enough participants in the study—few see the research as more than pseudoscientific quackery, and among those who do, many have fallen under the sway of a pseudoscientific quack whose ideas have compromised their ability to report accurately on their NDEs—one of the scientists, Dr. Joanna Lander, starts taking the drug in order to become a subject herself. She is startled to learn that when she undergoes an artificially induced NDE, she keeps seeing herself in the same context: the deck of the sinking Titanic.
In one sense, in proper Willisian fashion, nothing really happens for the first two-thirds of the novel. The characters spend this part of the story collecting data, undergoing artificial NDEs, and trying to make sense of what they are finding. As Joanna continues to submit herself to the procedure while the process is being fine-tuned, she begins to see longer and clearer visions of the Titanic. Is she actually, in some way, astral-projecting onto the Titanic itself? Or is this a vivid hallucination produced by her own familiarity with Titanic-themed trivia and the mania surrounding the recently released James Cameron movie? Will this research even amount to anything? In other words, if they figure out the logic of an NDE—that is, if it has a medically intelligible function that could be manipulated—will that result in some breakthrough that will allow them to help patients presently coding in the hospital?
As the novel progresses and as Joanna artificially induces more and more Titanic-themed NDEs, she begins to grow frantic. Her scientific principles are repeatedly challenged by the spooky and even apparently supernatural features of the NDEs, like the details in her visions that seem to somehow match the actual layout and features of the Titanic. She begins to fear that the quack, Maurice Mandrake (Willis often has a positively Dickensian attitude to character-naming), might actually be on to something.
As Joanna spirals, the architecture and politics of the hospital begin to mirror aspects of the doomed scenario that recurs in her NDEs. During these experiences, Joanna runs around the deck of the sinking ship, watching as the crew desperately tries to signal for help and talking to the confused and unhelpful passengers. The ship cants and lists unpredictably, making it hard to move across the deck without stumbling. Meanwhile, in the waking world, Joanna’s hospital is an uncannily labyrinthine place, poorly designed and constantly being haphazardly renovated; simply getting from one place to another is a challenge that may very well change from one day to the next.
Besides the shifting architecture, the halls are filled with annoying obstacles: namely, people who are preventing Joanna from getting where she needs to go. The quack, Mandrake, insists on convincing her that his spiritualist nonsense is correct. Mr. Wojakowski, one of the study’s participants, often waylays her to tell her exaggerated stories about his World War II adventures. (One of these takes place on the Yorktown, an American aircraft carrier heavily damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea but repaired so fast that it was ready for action in the Battle of Midway three days later.) None of the doctors’ pagers are ever working correctly. Joanna seeks out her high school English teacher because she believes he seeded some of the ideas that have been appearing in her NDEs, but there she runs into another obstacle: He is dying of Alzheimer’s, and rarely lucid.
Finally, two thirds of the way through, despite all the fraught confusion, Joanna figures it out: The NDE is not a supernatural event—it’s an SOS. The brain in extremis is making last-ditch efforts to send neurotransmitters and organic chemicals to the body’s other organs with a message to kick into overdrive, preventing collapse. These same chemicals trigger the brain’s associative abilities and its long-term memories, causing the hallucinatory NDEs, which are the conscious brain’s attempts to make sense of what is happening to it by using one of its oldest higher tools, metaphor. This, Joanna realizes, is why her visions of the sinking Titanic, with its crew frantically sending distress messages and its passengers getting in the way, are preternaturally detailed: All the details of the actual tragedy are stored in her long-term memory thanks to years of personal interest in it.
Overjoyed at her discovery of how NDEs work, she runs through the mazelike hospital to tell the other scientists. Before she reaches them with the news, she stops by the E.R. to inform a nurse, and there Joanna is stabbed and killed by a man who is in the midst of a drug-induced psychotic episode.
The last third of the book cycles between, on one hand, the remaining scientists, who are trying to figure out what epiphany Joanna had on her last day by reconstructing her movements and speculating about her thought processes before she was attacked; and on the other, liminal, fading Joanna herself, in the midst of her first authentic NDE.
In the real world, the scientists finally decipher the logic of the NDE just as Joanna did, and they use this knowledge to develop a drug that boosts the neurotransmitters the brain casts about in these last moments. Their work saves the life of one of the patients in the hospital, and it will likely save many more. But Joanna is not saved. And as she dies, experiencing in her dream state the grim effervescence of her own brain death and witnessing the loss of her memories, she begins to see stranger and stranger visions.
At the end of all of it, after she has forgotten even her own name, she finds herself floating over a vast sea on a piece of debris from the Titanic in the company of a little girl named Helen. Then she sees it: a ship coming towards them.
“Is it the Carpathia?” Helen asked.
“No,” Joanna said wonderingly. “It’s the Yorktown.”
“The Yorktown?” Helen said. “I thought the Yorktown sank in the Coral Sea.”
“It did,” Joanna said. She could see the wireless shack now, high up on the island, and the antennas, shaped like crosses. And was raised again in three days.
[. . .]
“Are we saved?” Helen asked, looking up at Joanna.
“I don’t know,” Joanna said. This could be some final synapse firing, some last attempt to make sense of dying and death, some final metaphor. Or something else altogether.
The novel ends shortly after, and Willis never provides a direct answer to the question about what that ship was, although the Christian symbolism is clear and direct. This last moment of ambiguous hope annoyed at least one writer for the science fiction website Tor.com, who argued it was a betrayal of the rest of the book’s skepticism. Not only that: The moment amounted to “forcing one religion and one interpretation down our throats . . . a ‘happy ending’ that stuffs everything into a box and does a bait and switch.” But this entirely misses the point: Yes, it’s possible that Joanna has had a genuine encounter with the Christian afterlife, but as Joanna herself notes, it’s equally possible the ship is purely a hallucination—one we’d expect to be decorated with bits and bobs pulled from her life and upbringing.
Either way, the specifics of Joanna’s experience are the last sparks of her own dying brain; I doubt that Connie Willis is suggesting that Jesus Christ appears to most in the moment of their death as the captain of an aircraft carrier. The point of this final encounter is not specifically about Jesus at all, you could argue; the point is that we do not and cannot know what happens after death. By the time Joanna finds out, she can’t tell us about it—death being, after all, “that undiscovered country from whose bourn / no traveler returns.” The point of this last moment is not to answer the question of death and the afterlife, but to ensure the question remains open and unanswerable.
Most importantly, regardless of what Joanna is experiencing in her final moments, none of it renders her death any less meaningless. Her life was meaningful and her research saved lives, but her death was an absurd, horrible thing, as all deaths are. Even the Yorktown, after its miraculous repair, sank at the Battle of Midway about a week later. As Francis Spufford put it in his book Unapologetic, “Every ship of ours is the Titanic.” Passage hopes that there may be something else after, but Willis refuses to stretch this hope so far as to claim that she has knowledge of ineffable things.
Throughout her books, Willis is keen to elicit delight; she also works to provide her readers with hope and comfort, but never at the expense of the truth; never at the expense of falsely clearing up the ambiguities of real life. Again and again, Willis’s work presents us with the great unanswerable questions: Is there hope? Is there life after death? Is there anything good or useful about our lives? Each time, she gives us the only honest answer. I don’t know, she says. But there might be.