Thomas Salerno: Every sci-fi author has their own unique origin story. What was your entry point to the world of science fiction?
W. L. Patenaude: I’m the youngest of four boys, and my brothers were all athletes and into rock music. I was the science geek who listened to Beethoven. There was no one group I felt fully a part of, so science fiction and fantasy—especially Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which I read every summer vacation—helped me escape and be part of something larger. The science fiction I read promised hope in a future abounding with new social orders and technological miracles. But, of course, as time went on, such stories and worldviews couldn’t quite live up to their promises. Eventually, I put aside science fiction as a vehicle for imagining a better world. This led to a later and more profound “origin story” when I embraced again what science fiction has to offer, but this time, it was baptized with my return to a life of faith.
Are there any authors, science fiction or otherwise, whose work has inspired or influenced you?
Arthur C. Clarke was my favorite author as a boy. You’ll find small tributes to him in A Printer’s Choice. As a budding engineer, I was delighted with his accuracy—especially when it came to orbital mechanics. His detail and precision helped ground his works, giving them an authenticity that made whatever else he was trying to say that much more believable. Now, of course, his atheistic worldview resulted in stories about futures with no religion—or futures with advanced technologies that take the place of faith. And so, as a negative influence, I think I have Clarke and authors like him to blame for my drifting away from my Catholic faith as a teenager. As a positive influence, I certainly have him to thank for entering the field of engineering. And for writing. But with it all came a profound skepticism of the faith of my parents and grandparents—at least for a time.
Has your own faith journey helped to shape and inform the kind of science fiction you’ve chosen to write?
Without a doubt. Thanks to two local pastors—one a huge Star Trek fan—I returned to the Church in 1999 after some two decades of living a sort of odd blend of paganism, agnosticism, and atheism. Later came a master’s degree in theology, and through it all was my desire to write. My focus for several years had been on environmental protection—on how the choices we make are harming the great good of God’s creation. But as time went on, that topic became a bit of a cottage industry. The core messages of our individual and communal use of free will were not being broadcast in an effective way to the secular environmental community or the community at large. So I asked myself how that could be done. How could the wider world be baptized with the Gospel and the Church’s teachings on free will, sin, and grace? Of course, that question led to the inevitable decision to write a science fiction murder mystery involving artificially intelligent three-dimensional printers. That was the origin of A Printer’s Choice.
Without giving too much away, tell us a bit more about A Printer’s Choice. Why did you decide to focus on the emerging science of artificial intelligence (AI) and the meaning of free will?
That’s a great question. Frankly, the idea of blending artificial intelligence and three-dimensional printers was the core of the story before I really had a chance to find the best way to use that concept in a philosophical or theological way. After all, the ability to print matter into new forms comes with much potential for storytellers. But then add an artificial intellect behind that—and then wonder what happens when such printers use that mind to print better printers with smarter minds—well, buckle up, because with that scenario, you can go anywhere. But then, with my theology hat on, I began to explore how best to use that concept to introduce the reader to the Gospels. I’m blessed to have maintained great friendships with theologians at Providence College, where I studied for my master’s degree. I was able to bounce ideas off them and discuss what it may mean to introduce faith into the reasoning behind the great minds of the printers in A Printer’s Choice. And from there, it was easy to chart a course using the vehicles of popular genres to explore the great realities of free will, sin, and grace, and to do so with one eye on evangelization.
Science fiction has always been a genre that delights in tackling “big questions” and complex issues. Do you think, as people of faith, Catholic writers can bring an important, fresh perspective to the sci-fi genre?
From the reviews of A Printer’s Choice, I can say indeed, yes. Several reviewers—both trade reviewers and average readers on Amazon—found that the element of faith added a weight to the larger issues at play—issues that go to questions of what it means to be human. And of how we humans can build that better world that we dream of. That said, you hit on an important concept when you ask about Catholic voices bringing a “fresh” perspective to such questions. The answer there is also a resounding yes. But what we bring to such discussions is only “fresh” because so much of the West has largely forgotten its Christian roots. So, when we have the main character—a retired Marine, now a parish priest from Boston—discussing issues of choice, free will, good, and evil, he’s re-telling truths that the Church has always offered but that the world has lost to shadow and ignorance. What many readers say they appreciated about A Printer’s Choice is its voice (its Catholic voice) that assures them that all can be well—if we choose, if we open ourselves to God’s grace.
I think we’d agree that science fiction desperately needs new voices eager to approach the genre from a faith perspective. Do you have any advice for aspiring Catholic sci-fi novelists?
Three thoughts come to mind. The first two derive from the great commission—that we are to baptize all nations, baptize the world, with our writings. Foremost, then, is our own encounter with divinity and our personal quest for holiness. If we intend to represent Christ and his church, we must begin with a desire to be in relationship with him—to live and breathe within the Church; with her teachings close to our hearts. Our own sanctification, or at least our attempts to work towards it, must be where we start.
Second, from the divine to the worldly, we have to have some engagement in the world—especially if we’re writing science fiction based in the near future. In my case, I was able to call upon three decades as an environmental regulator and the law-and-order experiences that still come with that career. From that, I was able to flesh out the human foibles of the engineers and the blue-collar workers in A Printer’s Choice, as well as some of the legal and organizational realities of life in a fallen world.
Last, if our intention is truly to evangelize the world with our writings, we should expect pushback from our ancient enemy. We will be engaging in spiritual warfare, whether we like it or not. And so, all such attacks that can come with evangelization and catechesis may very likely come our way. Which underscores the importance of the first item above—our strong relationship with Christ.
Do you have future plans for a follow-up novel (perhaps even a sequel to A Printer’s Choice)?
Indeed, I do. The sequel is underway—set just a few months after the climax of A Printer’s Choice. With the world building already done, the sequel will begin and build at a much quicker pace. As for its aim, all I’ll say is that many of the themes and choices in A Printer’s Choice will be in play. All your favorite characters will return—and you’ll be introduced to a few new ones. And the Feast of the Sacred Heart will be a big day in this next installment. So stay tuned!