Regulator pens sci-fi murder mystery exploring tensions between engineers and operators

July 24, 2019


Environmental regulator Bill Patenaude’s commitment to addressing climate change does not stop when he heads home from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), where he assesses the effects of climate change on the state’s wastewater infrastructure.

Last year, Patenaude published A Printer’s Choice, a science fiction novel set in the year 2088, when the effects of climate change are being felt with full force.


Humanity migrates to the stars

Click here for more information about “A Printer’s Choice” as well as where to purchase a copy. Photo courtesy of Bill Patenaude.

In the novel’s world, the Earth is reeling from the consequences of environmental destruction. Oceans have risen to deadly levels, wildfires and storms rage, and the world’s resources are strained. Meanwhile, a new world built in outer space by 3D-printers and artificial intelligence has experienced its first homicide.

A Printer’s Choice” is about many things: climate change, religious extremism, artificial intelligence, philosophy. But it is also about wastewater and the people responsible for treating it. Major characters include a wastewater engineer and two operators.

The idea behind the novel, Patenaude explained, came when the editor of a Catholic newspaper asked him to write about the Catholic perspective on environmental protection. He also wrote a nonfiction book on the topic, and uses his master’s degree in theology to manage the online blog, Catholic Ecology.

“Pope Francis was bringing environmental issues to the forefront,” Patenaude explained. “The church and academia were talking to each other about it. I wondered how I might get these messages out to a larger audience.”

His answer: a genre-crossing novel that combines science-fiction, climate-fiction (cli-fi) and murder mystery in a story that would be informed by both his academic studies and his 30 years of experience as an environmental regulator.


Tomorrow’s water workers contend with today’s tensions

In the novel, wastewater operators are builders, a class of people in the new world who fix and maintain things. In this case, they also are integral to solving a murder.

The engineers, meanwhile, are trying to design the perfect society. The tension between the two classes is a major point of conflict in the story, Patenaude explained.

The builders throw digs at the engineers that wastewater treatment plant operators may find familiar, said Patenaude. “Builders ask, ‘Why did the engineers design it this why? Why didn’t they listen to us? They should have put that pump here.’ That’s an important part of the story.”

“But it’s not good versus bad,” he continued. “It is not black and white. Everyone has an opportunity to be good or to cause problems. The engineers are trying to do the right thing. And some builders aren’t savvy enough to communicate with them.”

Much of the tension stems from the builders’ fears that the 3D-printers and robotic assistants will steal their livelihood.

“Builders are left wondering about their purpose in life,” said Patenaude. “You see operators react the same way when they see the automation of today’s wastewater treatment facilities.”


A 334-page love letter to water professionals


Bill Patenaude, a Rhode Island-based environmental regulator with over 30 years of experience, made his debut as a science-fiction writer in 2018. “A Printer’s Choice,” which documents the first homicide investigation on a new human settlement in space, explores tensions between people, the environment, and technology. Three of the novel’s main characters are water treatment professionals. Photo courtesy of Patenaude.

Back in real life, Patenaude is a fan of operators and the role they play in protecting the environment.

“There was a reason I picked wastewater operators to be characters in the book,” he explained. “We as regulators and engineers may not always take the time to acknowledge that those on the front lines need to be part of the solution. The operators and lab folks are wrestling with these big issues. They are the unsung heroes of civilization. I want them to know that we know they exist, and they are to be celebrated.”

It’s not just in the water industry, but in society in general. “The novel uses this construct to show what is happening in the world. Our industry is used to discuss larger truths about society in general,” he explained.

A Printer’s Choice” doesn’t wrap up answers in a pretty bow. “Questions are still lingering, and the new world is expanding,” Patenaude explained. “Lot of opportunities remain for bad things to happen.” A sequel, in other words, is possible.

In the meantime, “A Printer’s Choice” is available on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites.

                                                                              — Mary Bufe, WEF Highlights

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