A dead Dominican priest in outer space, a retired Marine turned priest from Boston recruited to help solve an extra-terrestrial crisis, and a planet earth ravaged by war and environmental destruction. These are all the elements of W.L. Patenaude’s debut novel, A Printer’s Choice, just out this month.
For Patenaude, an engineer and environmental regulator who founded CatholicEcology.net, the leap from opinion and commentary to fiction is an effort to reach a new audience. In an interview with Crux, Patenaude describes why he turned to a new medium to spread Pope Francis’s message in Laudato si’ that “everything is connected.”
Crux: You’ve long written about matters related to ecology. Why did you decide to make the leap from non-fiction and opinion writing to fiction?
Patenaude: To reach a wider and important audience, meaning those not already engaged in conversations about how the big issues of our age, such as environmental protection, can benefit from Catholic thought. Even three years after the release of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’, it seems to me that much of the faith-eco dialogue taking place is between those already in the choir —such as those in academia, the Church, and among eco-advocates.
I want to help expand that. We need more people discussing foundational issues related to free will, authentic choice, and the implications of our choices—not to mention what it means to be human. And I wanted to encourage that in a fun, thought-provoking way. So I thought, what better medium than a science-fiction murder mystery?
A Printer’s Choice is dubbed as a “Catholic sci-fi novel” — not exactly your standard category for Catholic reading. What are some similar or comparable titles that have served as inspiration for this?
My inspiration actually worked in reverse. What inspired me was the sci-fi I consumed as a teenager, when I had walked away from the Church. My favorite author at the time, Arthur C. Clarke, was openly hostile to religion — Christianity in particular. Influences such as Clarke are probably one of the reasons I both studied engineering and left the Church.
Now, one reconversion and one master’s degree in theology later, I wanted to write both an homage to geniuses like Clarke — especially my favorite of his books, Rendezvous with Rama—and at the same time correct atheistic visions of the future that are steeped in notions of progress without God.
The Church, however, is no stranger to science. Are you hoping this novel pushes back against the idea that faith and science are incompatible?
Absolutely. The main character is a retired Marine, former atheist, and now a parish priest in Boston. He uses science throughout the story and at one point uses human evolution to explain a philosophical point—which may surprise some readers. This sets up some fun interactions between him and the great minds of the new world, who wrongly assume that faith and reason cannot coexist.
And, in fact, a major theme throughout A Printer’s Choice is the Catholic view that they must coexist, as Benedict XVI often reminded us, otherwise they both go astray. That message will certainly play an even larger role in subsequent books of the series.
You engage in some hypothetical questions in the book, such as if an artificially intelligent being is created, whether it can be saved? Without any spoilers, what’s your approach to answering this question and other speculative questions like it?
This is the great benefit of science fiction — you can create future realities and then speculate about their moral implications. As for artificial intelligence — or “Deep Intellect,” as it’s called in the book — the Church is grappling with such issues even now, as Crux has covered (here and here, for instance).
A Printer’s Choice proposes that there will be a form of artificial intelligence that develops into something else—something perhaps “alive” and sentient. That view isn’t one I’m necessarily married to, but it’s important for the plot because it allows the reader to encounter larger questions about human life and about the crises of our age — ecological and otherwise.
Whether it be through the questions you raise related to computer science or artificial intelligence, it seems one of your major aims is to help us gain a clearer understanding of the relationship that creatures have with their Creator. Is that a fair assessment of your project?
Great question. Ultimately beyond all the new-world tech and astrodynamics—and all the details about a future US Marine Corps and solving a murder in space—the heart of A Printer’s Choice are the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis. While unpacking what that means will continue as the series advances, the story affirms that sin is at the root of our failures, as individuals and as nations.
And more than once it points to the way past sin — that is, God’s grace — which will allow us to build new and better worlds, and save our current one, one choice at a time.