Ask a mathematician about the distinction between zero and nothing, and prepare for a clear answer: Zero, they’ll say, is a numerical value. Nothing, to put it simply, is a concept that represents an absence or something of no importance. At some point, everyone encounters people or power structures that make them feel like nothing. But what if “nothing” were a tangible entity that could be weaponized against perceived enemies? That’s the wickedly clever conceit Percival Everett plays with in Dr. No.
The novel’s title, a deliberate reference to Ian Fleming’s 1958 James Bond novel that became a 1962 film, tips off readers that a goof on the secret agent story awaits them. As fans of Everett’s previous work know, hijinks are always in the service of serious themes, usually related to race in America. In this case, they involve two men: a “slightly racially ambiguous” billionaire who yearns to be a Bond villain and a Black professor whose specialty, quite literally, is nothing.
The professor calls himself Wala Kitu, the Tagalog and Swahili terms, respectively, for nothing. He teaches mathematics at Brown University and has spent his career “contemplating and searching for nothing. . . . I work very hard and wish I could say that I have nothing to show for it,” because “to experience the power of nothing would be to understand everything; to harness the power of nothing would be to negate all that is.”
Someone with nefarious intentions might want to harness that power, too. One such criminal is John Milton Bradley Sill, who gives Wala $3 million to help him enact a plan: Break into the vault at Fort Knox and steal a shoebox that contains a special kind of nothing, then purloin a similarly destructive kind of nothing from the Naval Observatory. Sill intends to use these tools against those who “have never given anything to us,” meaning Black people. “It’s time,” Sill says, “we gave nothing back.”
That’s the sort of twisted logic that readers find throughout Dr. No, along with clever references and character names, including Wala’s one-legged bulldog, Trigo (short for trigonometry), and his colleague Eigen Vector, a straight-laced sort who’s excited about helping a supervillain, because, as she says, she wants to do “bang, bang, stabby, stabby, spy stuff.”
The result is a memorable work that has fun with spy-novel tropes while also addressing the treatment of Black people in America. Dr. No takes a while to get going, but there’s plenty of classic Everett sophistication to delight his fans. “Nothing matters,” Wala says. In more ways than one, this brilliant novel demonstrates how true that can be.