Local Catholic Ecology writer takes faith to new heights

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PROVIDENCE — William Patenaude wanted to tell a story where the Catholic Church has important things to say about free will, sin, grace, ecology, artificial intelligence and the human desire for God.

So Patenaude wrote “A Printer’s Choice,” a murder-mystery novel set in outer space.

“What I try to do is baptize old-school science-fiction, and in doing so, to try to bring to that audience some of the big issues that we’re dealing with on the eco-level, and to also use (the book) as a tool of evangelization and catechesis, as well as to have some fun,” said Patenaude, an engineer with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management who is a parishioner at St. Joseph Parish in West Warwick, as well as a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre.

Patenaude, who on his blog, CatholicEcology.net, writes about ecology from a Catholic perspective, with his columns on the subject published in Rhode Island Catholic and other outlets, has written his first novel that he hopes will be the premiere installment in a series of sci-fi mysteries.

Set in 2088, the story’s central character is Father John Francis McClellan, a parish priest from Boston with a military and law enforcement background. He is sent to investigate the murder of an undercover Dominican priest in New Athens, a new world engineered to have none of Earth’s problems, including religion.

In the plot that unfolds, Father McClellan’s encounters with New Athens’ engineers and its artificially-intelligent 3-D printers explore the questions of sentience, humanity’s fallen nature, choice and the effects of sin. The book will be released on Aug. 28, the feast of St. Augustine.

Patenaude recently discussed his debut novel with the Rhode Island Catholic.

How did you come up with the idea for A Printer’s Choice?

The idea came to me in 2014, the year before Laudato Si came out. Even then, I had begun to see that so much of the discussions happening around ecology, the big social issues and faith were not getting out to the general public.

So I asked the question — How do you get these issues out there? How do you start getting people to think about the issue of free will in relation to environmental protection, to what grace is and what it has to say, as well as the natural law.

Of course, the obvious answer is — you write a science-fiction murder mystery.

Why science-fiction?

I grew up reading science-fiction. One of the reasons I left the Church and became an engineer was because of the science-fiction I was reading as a teenager, which was very atheistic, very much “God is stupid and we have to grow beyond this and adopt science because that’s what’s going to save us.” That’s what I bought into. Then of course, going through life, coming back to the Church 20 years later and learning that it’s not going to be science or technology that saves us. It’s important, but we need more. What we need is God.

How did you approach the task of writing a novel?

I kind of jumped in knowing a general idea. I had read enough science-fiction and I’m an engineer so I felt comfortable with that. I have a master’s in theology degree, so I knew I could get theology into it. Also, I had picked up one of my mother’s murder mysteries, and I’m like, “If this can get published, I can get published.”

Also, at the time 3-D printing was coming out as a story, and I asked myself, “What would happen if there was an artificially-intelligent 3-D printer? And what would be the ramifications of that? And then, how do I get a murder involved in that? How do you get a priest involved? How does this happen in outer space? Then the story just kind of developed.

What is the book’s central theme?

The first piece we have to talk about is free will before we can build anything else. The first element is to look at what does it mean to be a creature that can choose, and what are the implications of that.

Really what I’m trying to do is reclaim the word choice, which is used in a way of, “Who are you to tell me what to do? I can choose whatever I want.” This is where catechesis gets involved, to let people know that, “No, the Church really advocates free will.” In fact, free will is the most important thing that a sentient being can have. But then, it’s understanding what that means. Free will is not meant to just serve you. Free will is meant to serve a greater good, and that’s the piece that’s missing.

How does the Catholic Church fit into the plot?

One thing I’m trying to do is show the Church in a good way. This is not Dan Brown. The goal is to present the Church as a voice for the importance of free will, and then to show what that means and the implications thereof.

What role does artificial intelligence play in the novel?

The main character makes a point at the end where he’s talking to someone about what happened. He’s not sure if the entities discovered free will and sentience, if it was granted to them or if they got to a point in their own evolution where there was a divine moment. He doesn’t know, and that’s where the rest of the series will go. A decision will be made at the end of this book that may not be considered by everyone to be the right decision as the series unfolds.

How long do you see this series going?

At the very least it’s a trilogy but it could go further. I’m doing research now with an Italian Dominican who does work on these questions of artificial intelligence, science and technology. The priest who dies in the book is Dominican, so I want to make sure I have the Dominican thinking right. So depending on how that conversation goes, it could go 10 books. And the reception is important too. A lot of this depends on whether there’s a market for this.

What has the critical reception so far been like?

Some people really like it. But those who are really hardcore anti-faith and anti-Catholic are going to hate that. A few have said they like the concept but hate the whole Catholic element of it. That’s one of the reasons I wrote it. I’m not shying away from that. But any open-minded person should be okay with that.

Is the central priest character supposed to be like G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown?

He’s more like St. Paul. The people in New Athens need his help, and in the process, he’s able to interact with people, and to be an example, a witness and preach. That begins to have an effect on the culture. In the end, there’s an implication that the culture is aware of the benefits of faith. The last line is the chief engineer going to Father McClellan, who’s ready to go back to Earth and saying, “Would you mind staying with us a little longer?” That sets up the rest of the series.

“A Printer’s Choice,” published by Izzard Ink, is available now on Amazon.com and at Barnes & Noble Bookstores in hard and soft cover versions. The book can also be purchased in digital format for viewing on various e-readers.