Life choices take spotlight in science fiction, murder mystery

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Bill Patenaude checks his watch. He’d had a full day at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, where he is a principal engineer at the Office of Water Resources, before stopping by the Brewed Awakenings on Pontiac Avenue in Cranston.

He says he’s got another 10 minutes to talk before he needs to get home to his mother and prepare her dinner. He has planned a cheese omelet with a hefty chunk of bread on the side. She likes her bread.

Patenaude has been busy of late, and his efforts have not gone unnoticed. He was recognized this year by the New England Water Environment Association for creating a boot camp for wastewater treatment operators across the state – which, among other things, addresses the effects of climate change, an issue that he sees as vital to human survival.

Patenaude’s concern for the future of the planet – along with his love for his mother and desire for her to live the rest of her life in a comfortable, caring environment – provided inspiration for another endeavor, the one he had come to the coffee shop to discuss.

His first book, A Printer’s Choice, was published last year. It has since gained a coveted favorable review from Publishers Weekly.

The story includes the character of an older woman that is rescued from deplorable conditions by a priest. The priest – and more accurately, the church and Christianity – is a third ingredient in the book, which combines science fiction and a murder mystery to address making choices for the common good, the need to protect the environment and the concept of living virtuously.

How did this all come together for a man who had eschewed the church for nearly 20 years? A man who then returned to academia to get a master’s degree in theology, started a blog at CatholicEcology.net and become intimately involved with his own church and the Diocese of Providence?

The science fiction part, he explains, is a boyhood intrigue that’s never left him. He also sees science fiction as an antithesis to faith, which raises the question of why he picked it as a medium for a story about making choices.

The late Father Charles Downing, pastor of St. Joseph Church in West Warwick, had something to do with both Patenaude’s return to the church and use of science fiction in his story.

Patenaude remembers his parents returning from Mass and telling him he should have heard Downing’s homily on “Star Trek.”

Patenaude was incredulous. How had Downing intertwined what he considered at the time as two incompatibles – faith and reason? He decided to learn more and visited Downing. It was 1995 and the beginning of his return to the church.

Not to leave out others, Patenaude said Father Robert Marciano, pastor of St. Kevin and St. Benedict’s and president of Bishop Hendricken High School, also played a role in his renewed embrace of faith.

The concept for A Printer’s Choice dates back five years. Patenaude started writing in 2015 but then put the book aside when he taught a course at Providence College. The following year, he made a personal commitment to the project. He invested more than his own time into the work.

With the book completed, Patenaude chose the route of collaborative publication, meaning he would take on the role of publishing it. He sought out editors and an illustrator for the cover. Now, he says he’s discovering there’s a lot more work to getting a book out than just writing it.

His first big break was the Publishers Weekly review. It gives a sketch of the story, in which the Vatican selects Father John McClellan, a former Marine, to investigate a murder in New Athens, a world in outer space created by 3-D printers.

“This is a superb morality tale in which the power of free will and the implications of making good choices are carefully woven together,” the review reads. “Patenaude’s take on the possibilities of technology is inventive and in line with contemporary science, and his work truly shines as a nuanced, character-driven drama. This work is a must-read for those who enjoy thought-provoking, challenging speculative fiction.”

An immediate spike in sales followed the review. Amazon gives the book four stars.

In her review for Readers’ Favorite, Cheryl E. Rodrigues says Patenaude’s work “challenges the reader to consider the enormity of the gift of free will.”

She adds, “Being a Christian, I appreciated the biblical references and the search for truth included in the story. As the narrative reaches its apex and descends to its conclusion, the crime mystery is solved, yet its solution gives birth to a deeper, profound mystery: what makes us human? A Printer’s Choice incites contemplation of the essence of the freedom of choice.”

Patenaude estimates he’s sold 2,000 books. It’s a start, and with more exposure he expects those numbers to grow. He’s already planning another book – he’s written the first chapter – in what will be a series. He said he’s being told the story would make for a great movie.

He has a book signing this Saturday starting at noon at Barnes & Noble on Route 2 in Warwick.

But, like a preacher, Patenaude leaves the feeling that neither the book nor his drive to write it is about him, but rather the message. He said he has striven to deal with “real core issues” and how to “bring God’s grace into the world so we can make choices.”

It’s only appropriate that a “printer,” a machine with artificial intelligence, should play a role in a story that examines faith and making choices.

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