A sci-fi novel about faith, eco-choices

Guest post: A Printer's Choice uses a unique medium to ask tough questions about saving life on Earth

The following review of A Printer's Choice is from Marybeth Lorbiecki, M.A., a writer, author, and the director of the Interfaith Ocean Ethics Campaign, a joint program of the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care and the Franciscan Action Network.


In A Printer's Choice, W. L. Patenaude sets a sci-fi murder mystery in the technically constructed world of 2088—post Earth's environmental and societal collapse due to wars over reduced resources and fundamentalist terrorist religious factions. To escape the destruction and maintain the human species, "New Athens" was built and printed in outer space.

Not exactly the Father Brown setting, but [main character] Father McClellan is as artfully drawn and compelling in his hard-won spiritual wisdom works. He uses his marine toughness, programming skills, and gritty faith to sort out potential motivations and methods to solve the murder of an undercover priest, Father Tangelo.

An engineer himself, Patenaude describes all the technological details, societal tensions, and moral ambiguities of New Athens with confidence and finesse. The most compelling passages, though, are the human ones, where McClellan and other characters grapple with their troubled pasts and future options, and the free will choices before them. The priests, Archbishop, and Cardinal feel both homey and believable, touch points of warmth and familiarity for Catholics in this foreign world with so much less freedom and more terror for Americans and all earthly citizens.

At one point, a puzzled intelligent printer asks Father McClellan:

"Why do human populations choose what is not good if they have the freedom to choose what it is? The human species lost hundreds of millions of its members because of wars and the damage inflicted to the life-supporting ecosystems of Earth. Humans had access to understanding the laws of nature--how their actions would harm other humans and other life forms, how these would alter the planetary climate and ecosystems, how they would bring about great levels of extinction. And yet a significant number of the human race chose to continue lifestyles involving excessive levels of resource consumption and planetwide destruction."

Though the plot centers on the 2088 choices that led to murder, it is in some ways symbolic of this larger set of ecological choices facing us now as humans. Will we use our free will and faith to choose the good to try to head off the described collapse? A Printer's Choice is the first book in a series, but the real sequel is in readers' own lives. How will they apply the wisdom and warnings in this dystopia novel in their own lives? Patenaude also provides an idea of what ministry, diocesan governance, and Vatican oversight should look like then, and by implication, now.

In A Printer's Choice, Catholics are not wondering if they can trust their clergy. New Athens has outlawed faith so the clergy are portrayed as spiritual heroes. Women and lay people still do not appear to have key ministerial or decision-making roles in this Church of the future. So while 70 years has created excessive change in the world around it, the Church seems to have remained structurally the same, which seems less likely than some of the other imagined elements of the book, considering the many changes in the previous years of the Church. However, had the Church changed too, the current Catholic readers might have been too distracted to focus on the book's settings, plot, characters, and themes, which are already complex in their own right.

A Printer's Choice is an excellent read for Catholic sci-fi and murder mystery fans who want to see their living faith applied in the new context of an imagined future, which sets it off with greater power, just as smoke can show the illuminating power of a laser, an image that is woven through the tale. It also shows the absolute necessity of Catholics and all world citizens to transform their current ecological perspectives and choices in light of Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si': On Care of Our Common Home to try now to avoid the environmental and societal collapse described.


A Printer's Choice will be released August 28, the Feast of Saint Augustine. Learn more here.

About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.