A Printer's Choice: The Making of a Catholic Science Fiction Odyssey, Part 1
An interview with author W. L. Patenaude
Earlier this year, I interviewed science fiction author W. L. Patenaude for the Word on Fire blog. We discussed his journey home to the Catholic faith of his youth, as well as his extraordinary debut novel A Printer’s Choice. In Part 1 of this extensive and fascinating follow-up discussion, we tackle his work as an environmental engineer, his educational background in both science and theology, as well as some of the real-life science behind his fiction.
Thomas Salerno: Have you always been interested in science and engineering? What led you to pursue a career in these fields?
W. L. Patenaude: It was my boyhood love of science fiction that helped lead me to study the natural sciences and then to earn my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering—and inspired me to write. The “science” explored by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke in his 2001: A Space Odyssey encouraged me to learn more about topics such as astronomy, orbital mechanics, and propulsion. At the same time, the genre’s “fiction” elements lured me like the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey to explore more of the imaginary worlds written by real people like me. I was enthralled with how authors used speculative realities to explore truths in reality itself. They wrote in ways that taught and inspired me.
Salerno: Tell us about your day job in environmental management. What exactly does that entail?
Patenaude: I have many colleagues at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) that focus on direct environmental management. They physically protect and nurture ecosystems, such as forests; they monitor and control invasive species; they help acquire and steward areas that contain sensitive ecology. Many others at RIDEM, myself included, are more managers of people. I oversee a program that regulates the operations and maintenance of Rhode Island’s major municipal wastewater collection and treatment systems. It’s the men and women who staff these facilities that do the work and make the tough decisions that turn sewage into clean water. Helping them, training them, and even inspiring them—rather than simply being regulatory overlords—becomes (or should become) a vital element of protecting the waters of the state. That’s the direction I’ve steered my office. We would rather train and educate and encourage than “regulate” in the conventional meaning of the word. But if we must, we have the statutory and regulatory tools to enforce and penalize, and we don’t hesitate if those tools are necessary.
Salerno: You’ve done quite a bit of nonfiction blogging about environmental science. Did Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ have any influence on your decision to write about this topic?
Patenaude: Several years after I returned to the Catholic Church (which is its own story), I wrote a guest column about Catholicism for the local secular newspaper. That caught the attention of the editor of the local diocesan paper, who then found out I worked at RIDEM. In 2005, he reached out to ask if I would write a regular column about the Catholic perspective of ecology, which I of course eagerly agreed to. But I’ll admit, in the beginning I thought there wouldn’t be much to write about—which, of course, was completely wrong. At the time, Pope John Paul II was writing about the environment—he did so from the start of his pontificate, even in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis. Pope Benedict XVI built on those writings and was soon called “the Green Pope.” Francis expanded it all and accelerated the Church’s engagement of direct environmental activity in places such as the United Nations, but it was really his two predecessors that began unpacking the philosophical and theological foundations of what I call “Catholic Ecology,” not to mention calling attention to the scriptural ground into which those foundations are built.
Salerno: You also hold a master’s degree in theology. That might surprise those who view science and faith as implacable rivals. What made you, an engineer and science writer, decide to pursue such a degree?
Patenaude: Well, that gets to the other story I mentioned—my return to the Church. The downside of my love of science fiction was that the vast majority—actually, probably all—of the authors I read as a boy were unabashed atheists or at least harsh critics of organized faith. This laid within me a seed of doubt. In fact, after receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation, I left the Church.
Later, sometime after college, when I was first writing, my parents mentioned that the pastor in our family parish preached that Sunday about Star Trek—one of my favorite shows—which intrigued me. So, I called him and interviewed him. Turns out he was a big sci-fi fan, too! I left that conversation with an appreciation of the Catholic faith as being one that valued reason. Several years after that, another pastor at a nearby parish, whom I met through mutual friends, invited me back to Mass. He was as personable as he was intelligent. He happily answered all my questions, and he did so with a joy one rarely finds in the world. So, I went to Mass for the first time in almost two decades on a warm, humid Sunday morning in August of 1999. Soon after, I joined his parish.
Six years later, my intellectual curiosity called me to study theology, which I could do easily because of the wonderful theology program in my own backyard at Providence College. I did very well in those studies, partly because my engineering education taught me how to systematically engage the topic and to solve academic problems. At the same time, my growing faith led me with the light of reason to better know the true Light, Jesus Christ, from which all truth comes.
Salerno: Tell us a bit about the real-world science that inspired your novel A Printer’s Choice. How did your ideas for the story evolve over time?
Patenaude: When I set about to write a work of science fiction, I did so because I was eager to find another way to write about the philosophical and theological foundations of the Catholic engagement of ecological protection. I was frustrated with the cottage industry that the topic had become within a small subset of the Church. I wanted to help expand the audience. And of course, I had always wanted to write a science fiction novel! So, with the maxim of writing what you know about, much of the earth sciences in A Printer’s Choice are relatively straightforward extrapolations of contemporary eco issues. The same goes with the book’s use of theology. The story examines topics like free will and grace based on my master’s thesis on Benedict XVI’s writings. The idea of an evolved artificial intelligence (AI) within advanced three-dimensional printers, however, was a bit of an inspired idea—which came about during prayer, of all things. Everything else took some serious research into the topics I once read as a boy—topics such as physics, orbital mechanics, and propulsion. I wanted the story to be as realistic as possible given the nature of the speculative science of artificially intelligent 3D printers.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview, in which Patenaude and I will talk about his creative process, his journey to publication, and the crucial influence his spiritual life has on his writing life.