Justin Eure, of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton, NY, one of ten national laboratories overseen and primarily funded by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), has written a review of Indiscriminate Distinctions. We are pleased to share it with you here.
Indiscriminate Distinctions is unabashedly a book with an agenda. As author Warren Dunn puts it on his blog, “science and religion should be kept separate and apart, especially in the science classrooms.” But more often than not, Dunn walks the tightrope between didacticism and keen storytelling with remarkable grace. Crucially, he never slips into the heavy-handedness that often plagues much fiction with a message. By placing a very real issue—creationism in the classroom—within a fictional narrative that sprawls from Ivy League hallways to a gun-laden pickup truck, Dunn offers an insightful, accessible, and entertaining contribution to the national discourse.
Those looking for heroes and villains will find themselves disappointed. Dunn deals in characters and complexity, and this novel goes to great lengths to avoid further polarization. In fact, the conference that provides much of the dramatic structure focuses in no small part on inclusiveness and respect.
The novel follows physicist Owen Miller, who finds himself caught in a series of unpredictable relationships while organizing two conferences: the first about the physics-based explanations for the universe’s design; the second invented to placate and preempt the fundamentalists that may protest the science of the first. The professional and personal struggles of Owen, an unlikely and often unwilling protagonist, carry the emotional load of Indiscriminate Distinctions. Fortunately, Owen is endlessly interesting.
The book’s greatest strength, even more than its thematic clarity or thrilling third act, is the depth of Owen Miller. The death of a colleague places the brilliant young scientist at the helm of a massive conference and he finds himself almost immediately thereafter acting as sole parent to a baby he never intended to have. In many ways, the story revolves around Owen’s ability to juggle romance, fatherhood, and an endlessly roving mind. Dunn has a particular knack for sharing Owen’s psychology and looping the reader in on his ever-evolving feelings. Owen’s shrewd readings of silence in the opening scene is a perfect introduction.
Amidst the frenzied conference planning and squeezed-in strolls with his daughter, Owen stumbles through relationships with three very different (and very beautiful) women. The rising artist (Josie), naïve academic (Constance), and hard-edged professional (Elaine) never slip into caricatures, despite their disparate backgrounds and vocations. Elaine in particular is full of surprises, as when her composure slips upon learning about Constance’s connections to the White House (“Holy shit,” she says), or her nonchalance the morning after sleeping with Owen.
As the conferences grow increasingly complex, Owen’s collaborators demonstrate extreme intelligence and competence—as they should. Thankfully, Dunn never resorts to reckless unprofessionalism or random acts to inject drama—a common and lazy trope in so much of today’s media. These academics, politicians, and administrators are at the top of their respective fields and ought to be sharp and efficient; it is a relief to see that they are. The optimism and indefatigability of Neil Chambers, who fights cancer as he leads the creationism conference, is particularly memorable and charming.
The principal cast gives Dunn a chance to demonstrate his exceptional gift for dialogue, which blazes along easily over both drinks and conference tables—albeit with a few too many exclamation points. One might argue that the characters are too articulate and quick-thinking, but their degree of education and achievement demands that. Josie is a bit of an exception and offers a nice foil to the erudition—she’s plenty intelligent, but her mind doesn’t sprint along quite so analytically as the others’. In all instances, the dialog is charged with emotional depth.
However, all that competence and pragmatism leads to the book’s most significant fault: whatever the problem is, this crew can handle it. Owen, in over his head by his own admission, never seems at risk of drowning. And when he makes significant stumbles—as when his own inebriation leads to a dear friend crashing a borrowed car—the fallout is brief and Owen faces no lingering personal or professional consequences. Though the stakes are high, failure never seems like a real possibility. Owen begins to drink too much, but it never spirals out of control; he grows impatient with the eggshell-walking of the conference committee, but he never risks burning bridges; he takes the lead in an unexpected White House press conference, but he doesn’t misplace a single word. A more strained or out of control Owen might heighten the tension and further personalize Indiscriminate Distinctions.
Regardless, academic conferences—even backed by the political and emotional charge of evolution vs. creationism—may not be enough to act as the main source of tension. Fortunately, Dunn brings the radical element into the story as more than just a specter. When real danger rears its head through an emailed threat to the Dawkins-like Malcolm Solomon, the safety suddenly erodes. The team must then investigate different fundamentalist groups, enlisting the aid of the FBI and a local reporter—the scene-stealing Jerry Foster. The investigation showcases Elaine’s cunning and allows the story to sprawl beyond the safety of offices and high-class restaurants.
We soon meet fundamentalists Bob Anderson and Michael Weller, characters who categorically disagree with the mission of Owen’s cohorts. The tension and momentum soar when the story moves to these oil barons and their lackeys. Dunn writes these men (and the abused wife of another co-conspirator) in three dimensions, never letting them slip into pure plot devices or violent counters to the sophisticated academics. They are all vividly human. In fact, the coordinated manhunt for the would-be vice presidential assassin plays as well as some of the best action/suspense movie scenes.
Unfortunately, the antagonists—though anticipated and discussed at length during early conference meetings—remain largely absent until the final third of the novel. Yes, the earlier email threat launched an investigation and subsequent shootout (vividly written to be sure), but too much of the book revolves around very smart people preaching to equally intelligent choirs as they sharpen their rhetoric. The radical voice is missing in the discussion—backwards as it may be—as are the fascinating characters who drive the climactic sequences.
Foster uncovers a dinner meeting that incriminates and links the conspirators, which might make an entry earlier in the book. Dunn could also introduce those characters and let them talk about science as a threat to the Christian values they believe to be the nation’s bedrock. The home life of neo-Nazi Al Ford, hinted at briefly, might also be worth mining to reveal and contextualize his misguided and dangerous perspective.
Because the narrative leaves Owen during that last act, Indiscriminate Distinctions might even be more balanced if it wandered into the oil fields and the lives of those representing “anti-intellectualism.” Dunn is more than capable of drawing those characters as elegantly as he does the more progressive and intellectual crowd. Beyond that, the plain-speaking fundamentalists and reporter provide stylistic breaks that may help define and distinguish the privileged world of Forestall. In fact, the interactions with the Urban Angels late in the novel have a similar and very welcome effect.
Dunn does inject the serious business of the conference (and domestic terrorism) with plenty of humor and irreverence. This is most often manifested through Owen’s young assistants—the “Taw-a-torito-to” incident is absurd and hilarious.
Some readers may label Indiscriminate Distinctions as a political thriller, others as a modern romance, and still others as a resource for brilliant distillations of the case for faith-free science in the classroom. The book is all of these things, and as thoughtful a defense of both science and tolerance as one is likely to find. In any case, one hopes it won’t take something like the book’s violent climax—Solomon’s “clarion call”—to spur comparably deep discussions within the actual White House and halls of Congress.