One of my favorite moments in the Lord of the Rings is when Aragorn and Gandalf are marching to the Gates of Mordor. Sauron so strongly desires the ring that he assumes that everyone else must feel likewise. He cannot imagine that anyone would try to destroy it, so when Gandalf and Aragorn arrive, Sauron believes exactly what Aragorn and Gandalf hoped he would, that they bear the ring and are challenging his dominion. Sauron empties his troops onto them. This folly leaves the fields of Gorgoroth vacant and enables Frodo and Sam to move unhindered to Mount Doom.
It is a favorite moment of mine because it portrays the king, Aragorn, doing what kings should do. He willingly heads into certain death to do what he thinks is right, to save his people and all peoples. His is a leadership that inspires us and that we hope to see in the world.
This is why I enjoyed W. L. Patenaude’s A Printer’s Choice. I am, admittedly, a sci-fi junkie, enjoying almost anything that is strange, bizarre, futuristic, and speculative. It is more than this though. I find that the alternative worlds and futures also help me to understand my world better and so nourish my faith. (In fact, one of my favorite essays is on science fiction as apocalyptic literature.) So, when I heard of a priest heading into space, I was all on board.
Set in 2088, a priest has been murdered on a space station, and Father John Francis McClellan, a priest from the Diocese of Boston, has been sent to investigate. This is not as simple as it seems, though. In space, religion is banned. Earth has been ravaged by wars that have decimated land and people. It was a war started by Juan Carlos Solorzano and his Soldados de Salvación and justified with a theology that leaned heavily on a Catholic world view. To many, the differences in religion, both within Christianity and between Christianity and Islam, were unimportant. The conclusion was that religion had almost destroyed Earth, so there would be none of it in space.
The setting also complicates the investigation. The space stations were designed and created by printers. Don’t think of the printer sitting on your desk but think of the printers capable of producing machines themselves, think of these printers but 70 years in the future. Also, give them an AI. Age Siri and Alexa 70 years and put them in charge of advanced 3D printers that can pull needed material from almost any surrounding environment, then, then, you have the printers in the story. They printed the space stations. They enable human life to exist in space. They continue to tinker with these stations as well, adjusting, refining, conceiving, all without direct human supervision. They are impressive machines, and it is one of them that murdered the priest.
Finally, there is one more complication. The priest that was murdered was not supposed to be there. No priests were to be on any of the stations. The priest was there pretending to be a builder and not a priest.
Father McClellan enters into this situation to solve the mystery, and he does so in ways that make one long for these kinds of priests. He is not perfect. In fact, part of the story is him working through choices that he made during his military service, that led him to the priesthood, and that made him one of the very few people who could investigate the murder on the station. Instead of making him a brooding individual, constantly thinking about himself, his past becomes the foundation of a life where charity guides all his actions, especially his pursuit of the truth. He protects and ministers to the man accused of manipulating the printer behind the murder. He respects and listens to the Engineers who oversee the printers and dislike religion. He cares for the Builders who work with the printers, some of whom have a hidden faith and others who oppose it. He does not seize control of the investigation from Security, even when the Engineers ask him to do so. Because of such charity, McClellan is able to solve the murder.
Just as Aragorn embodied the role of a king in the Lord of the Rings, Father McClellan’s portrayal in A Printer’s Choice captures what Christians and priests should be. His actions speak of a love for others grounded in a God who is love itself. By setting his story in the future and space, Patenaude enables readers to see the universality of this truth — that the choice to love is at the heart of the universe — more clearly.