What’s the Difference Between a Bond Villain and a Billionaire?

In Percival Everett’s Dr. No, a fiendish revenge plot doubles as a deeply American endeavor.

Silhouetted profile of a man's face, replicated to form a grid
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic

Beluga caviar. Fennel flowers. Beer-poached lobster. Not exactly a boxed lunch, but this is not your typical work meeting. John Sill, a Black billionaire with a maniacal desire to be a Bond villain, has gathered his appropriately eclectic cast of accomplices. One is a general, the commanding officer at Fort Knox. Another is a professor of mathematics who studies the nature of zero, or “nothing.” The latter is feeling a bit in over his head; he is starting to think maybe he wants, well, nothing to do with any of this.

By this point in Dr. No—the latest zany masterpiece from the novelist Percival Everett—there have been all we would expect from a spy novel: pointless submarine chases, private flights to secret compounds in the Mediterranean, and sexually available women, including one with a comically literal name. Yet Sill’s work, as the general has been explaining to Wala Kitu, the professor, is not just a game. Their boss’s diabolical plan to disappear parts of the country may not be practical or even possible, but it is political. “This country has never given anything to us and it never will,” the general exhorts Kitu, who is Black (we are made to suspect the general is as well). “It’s time we gave nothing back.”

Like Everett’s previous novel, The Trees, Dr. No is an experimental work of genre fiction nestled within a distinctly African American revenge tale. In The Trees, someone is murdering the descendants of Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who accused Emmett Till of accosting her in a grocery store in 1955. In that novel, the thirst for vengeance is sincere, if misguided. In Dr. No, our revenge seeker would seem to be both misguided and insincere. Over time, he degrades his sympathetic origin story (Sill claims that his father was killed after witnessing a cop’s involvement in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.) by treating it as little more than plot filler, trauma that needs to be there to set up the kinds of melodramatic one-liners that we expect from our movie villains. Case in point: “America killed him,” Sill tells Kitu, “and nothing is going to change that.”

Over time, his motivations come to seem as hollow and empty as his weapon of choice. Sill wants to deploy nothing literally—as a mysterious force that could either vaporize whole towns or perhaps just make them invisible. It’s never entirely clear how Sill plans to “make America nothing again,” as Kitu puts it. But much of the time, Everett harnesses nothing rhetorically, as commentary. We can think of Kitu, a mathematician who specializes in the concept of zero, as an absurdist accountant tasked with calculating what Black people owe to America. Nothing. What then should we make of the fact that his research is often presented as an Abbott and Costello–style gag? “I just received a grant that I hope leads to nothing,” he brags to a colleague. Later, when Kitu is confronted by a government agent about his involvement with Sill, he tries to be an informant, but semantics get in the way. “Sill is up to nothing,” Kitu says, to which the agent responds, in frustration: “You’re telling me he’s not planning anything.”

This is a novel about opposites, which is to say this is a novel about identity. “Would we speak of night if it was always day,” Kitu ponders. He is feeling unsure about the existence of nothing, worried he only clings to it out of a belief that something must have an opposite. The timing is perfect, then, for Kitu to be pulled away from campus by the machinations of a Black billionaire: Sill is an ideal subject for anyone looking to have their binary worldview blown up. Both victim and victor of American racial capitalism, Sill goes back and forth between identities as it suits him and his agenda. As Kitu tries to disentangle himself from Sill’s scheme, a fiendish plot cloaked in the language of Black militancy, is he, Kitu, becoming a race traitor? Or does he finally see Sill’s plot—to use wealth and power to decimate millions of innocent people—for what it is, a deeply American endeavor?

No one understands the slippery nature of identity like a spy, and Everett relishes the devices of the spy thriller, wielding Bond tropes as if they were flame-throwing bagpipes or cigarettes laced with cyanide. For instance, our protagonist, Wala Kitu, is not using his real name. That would be Ralph Townsend. Wala, he explains, is Tagalog for “nothing,” and Kitu means the same in Swahili. He is, you could say, a double 0. The invocation of Asian and African languages might also be a detail from the original Dr. No, by Ian Fleming. In that book, Dr. No’s henchmen are known as “Chigroes”—a portmanteau of Chinese and Negroes. Fleming’s villains were frequently of mixed race or uncertain lineage. In Everett’s novel, Sill is likewise first described as “racially ambiguous,” possessing “tightly curled hair.” His father, we later learn, was a light-skinned Black man. As the critic Umberto Eco explained it, James Bond stood in for “Anglo-Saxon Moderation opposed to the excess of the half-breeds.” For Fleming, these “half breed” (to quote Eco) villains represented unstable loyalties, unlike Bond’s unflagging devotion to Great Britain.

One might argue that Sill’s disloyalty—his professed repudiation of America and its institutions—is all that really makes him a classic Bond villain. “I just want to get even,” he says. Yet when Kitu tries to dig deeper, Sill falls back on platitudes about payback. At one point, Kitu attempts to learn more about his boss’s motivations. “This is about race?” he asks. Sill quickly gets flustered: “This is a rather boring conversation. Don’t you have something cool to say about infinity or zero or imaginary numbers? Tell me something that makes no sense. That’s why I hired you.” The thinness of Sill’s political commitments threatens to reduce him to just another uber-rich jerk playing out his boyhood fantasies with expensive rockets. At a certain point, one realizes, the difference between Bond villain and billionaire is simply a matter of semantics. Why, then, the backstory—why any pretense toward being a race man?

Sill is undeniably Black, and yet he seems strangely detached from that identity, as if he were processing real racial trauma through rehearsed dialogue that belonged to someone else. That suspicion is borne out when we hear how he has programmed his fembot, Gloria. Like Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, Gloria is a sexy pilot. Unlike Pussy Galore, her backstory is a hodgepodge of plotlines from Black sitcoms of the 1980s. After her father’s dry-cleaning business became successful, she tells Kitu, “we moved on up, to the east side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky.” The choice to reference The Jeffersons, a TV show about an upwardly mobile Black family who become quite literally distanced from the world below, is telling, because a major theme of the novel is the way money can complicate racial identity and, by extension, racial solidarity. When Kitu tries to jump ship, he is told that he would owe interest on the money that he was paid because the funds were drawn from Sill’s investment portfolio. Sill might as well be telling Kitu, Black man to Black man: I own you.

It makes you wonder if Sill’s real villain-origin story is not the death of his father, but what his mother did with her husband’s life-insurance money. She became an entrepreneur, buying up nightclubs and, eventually, shares of IBM and Apple. She sent Sill to Phillips Exeter Academy, where he learned the ways of the moneyed and powerful and white. Only now, inserting himself into a race-revenge thriller, is he able to reclaim an identity that he has lost touch with. This is not to say that wealth erases Blackness; but it can blur the lines of allegiance. And when Sill does eventually pick a target—something to turn into nothing—he does not train his arrow on anything that would unsettle the balance of power or disrupt American institutions. Instead, he becomes fixated on a place where he was personally slighted—treated like a Black man, not a billionaire.

“What is the function of identity?” Kitu asks his students. They are confused by the question. In all fairness, this is supposed to be a math lecture. He seems off—to extend the subject metaphors—on a tangent. “What if I said the function of identity is recurrence in discourse? What we want is to find some kind of sameness of reference.” They are still confused, and one of them laughs and calls him “crazy.” Yet is identity not a numbers question? Fleming’s Dr. No thought he could turn Bond, shift his loyalties, but instead he found someone whole, indivisible in his fealty. Everett’s villain prefers his closest accomplices be Black. Sill feeds on their trust, their hope that, to borrow Kitu’s words, “sameness of reference” will count for something, or at least not nothing. This is the fantasy of Black capitalism, and in Dr. No, Everett has given us an antagonist up to the task of representing its delusions—a villain who thinks he is a hero, a savior who shows up empty-handed.