MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Dr. No: A Novel (2022)
Percival Everett
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Wala Kitu is a professor of mathematics at Brown University who specializes in nothing. (No, it is not that he doesn't have a specialty. He is an expert in the very concept of nothingness.) His best friends are his one-legged dog and Eigen Vector, another math professor at Brown. All three of them are kidnapped by the evil billionaire John Sill who wants to use Wala's expertise to steal the box of "nothing" which is being held at Fort Knox and use it against the United States.

(quoted from Dr. No: A Novel)

I am serious about my study. I am a distinguished professor of mathematics at Brown University, though I have not for decades concerned myself with arithmetic, calculus, matrices, theorems, Hausdorff spaces, finite lattice representations, or anything else that involves values or numbers or representations of values or numbers or any such somethings, whether they have substance or not. I have spent my career in my little office on George Street in Providence contemplating and searching for nothing. I have not found it. It is sad for me that the mere introduction to my subject of interest necessarily ruins my study. I work very hard and wish I could say that I have nothing to show for it.

I'm not sure what I expected from a book entitled "Dr. No", whose cover proudly identifies its author as a Pulitzer Prize Finalist, but this was not it.

For one thing, I had expected it to be a sort of prequel to the James Bond novel, providing an origin story for the famous Bond villain of that name. However, this novel takes place in a world, like ours, where James Bond is fictional. It just so happens that Sill wants to be like a Bond villain.

Also, I did not imagine that the only adjective I would be able to come up with to describe it would be "silly", but indeed it is. This is probably the silliest book I've ever read. A good deal of it is taken up by "nothing" jokes, which remind me of the classic Abbott and Costello bit "Who's on First?" Surrounding that, there is an awful lot of humorous nonsense that takes place.

I will admit that some of the "nothing jokes" are funny, and some of them are even somewhat thought-provoking. For example, consider this joke about a mathematician's misuse of transitivity:

(quoted from Dr. No: A Novel)

"Here's one. A mathematician is asked if he'd rather have cold coffee or meet God. He says he'll have the cold coffee."

"Why does he say that?" I asked.

"He's been told that nothing is better than meeting God and cold coffee is better than nothing."

Most of them are not that funny, though. And, the running gag of "nothing jokes" started seeming old long before the final punchline.

There is also a semi-serious theme of racism and retaliation running through the book. John Sill is seeking revenge for the murder of his father, a black man who was killed by white police officers in a coverup surrounding the MLK assassination. The narrator, Wala Kitu is also African American. He encounters some racism (such as in a scene where he is pulled over for "driving while black", which was much funnier than it had any right to be), and has some sympathy for Sill despite the fact that he is completely evil. (Perhaps I should mention that the author, whose photo on the cover shows only an empty park bench, is also African American, and an English professor at the University of Southern California.)

Yet, despite the potential for something serious to come out of either the exploration of nothingness and/or the racism aspect, the book left me in the end only with a sense that it was an extremely silly, drawn out joke.

There are a lot of references to mathematics in the book. And, although it breaks mathematician stereotypes by having the only mathematicians who appear in the book (Wala Kitu and Eigen Vector) being a black man and white woman, respectively, the book also makes frequent use of the standard stereotypes of mathematicians as crazy, anti-social, and hopelessly naive. Here are a few highlights:

  • We are told that Wala Kitu's name is derived from the words for "nothing" in Tagalog and Swahili.
  • There are mathematically-flavored chapter titles like "Existential Quantifier", "A Bijective Function", and "For All y Such That".
  • The mathematicians are presented as being socially awkward, as the following excerpt both states and humorously demonstrates:

    (quoted from Dr. No: A Novel)

    Outside I stumbled into one of my colleagues, a very young mathematician named Eigen Vector. Her specialty was topology, what else? Like most mathematicians, including me, she fit somewhere on the spectrum and was likely to say nearly anything and so she did.

    "My shoes match today," she said as a greeting.

    I looked at her Nike sneakers. "Two of them," I said.

    [...]

    "It's raining, you know," she said.

    "Yes, I know."

    "Do you ever eat lunch?" she asked.

    "Yes, I do," I said.

    "Me, too. Almost every day. About the same time every day."

  • Those interested in gender equity in mathematics might appreciate this conversation between Wala and Eigen:

    (quoted from Dr. No: A Novel)

    "You're right, Eigen. I know nothing and for that I am well compensated. You know a lot and receive less. I'm a terrible mathematician. You know, it could be sexism."

    "What's that?

    I looked at her disbelievingly for a few seconds. "Prejudice and discrimination against someone because of his or her gender, usually hers."

    "That's a thing?"

    "Pretty big thing. It's been going on for quite a while now, as in forever. It's been in the newspaper from time to time and on occasion made clear." I didn't mean to sound sarcastic, not very sarcastic.

    "That doesn't seem fair."

    "No, Eigen, it's not. That's sort of the point. Neither is racism."

    "Don't tell me."

    I nodded.

  • After Eigen is drugged (or hypnotized?) by Sill, Wala connects with her by starting to list an axiom of Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms and having her complete it.
  • At one point, Wala is able to use his knowledge of math and anatomy to fend off an attack from (apparent) muggers.
  • Sill's plan involves a secret government satellite called the "Complex Projective Plane Orbiter".
  • As Eigen is recovering from whatever mind control Sill has used on her, she says "I'm so stupid", to which Wala replies "I don't think anyone would say that [...] How many people actually understand the Collatz Conjecture?" This leads into a conversation about how they know math, but nothing about "life". In particular, they acknowledge that though they can compute the cube root of a seven digit number in their heads, they cannot even balance a checkbook.
  • We learn that Eigen Vector was a child prodigy who became a tenured math professor at age 19.
  • Wala comments on Eigen's (mathematical) sense of humor:

    (quoted from Dr. No: A Novel)

    After a while Eigen came out of the washroom laughing. "Look at this," she said. She was holding a small plastic bottle of shampoo.

    "What about it?"

    "Look at the name."

    I took it from her and looked at the label. Young-Laplace. "That's great," I said. The Young Laplace equation was a nonlinear partial differential equation that described capillary pressure that had application regarding the surface of soap bubbles. I looked at Eigen, my friend, with new appreciation. What was wonderful was how unfunny this association was, how many connections she had to traverse to find the humor.

Anyway, this book was sufficiently funny that I enjoyed it despite the often offensive mathematician stereotypes it utilized. If you are looking for a laugh, you might also want to read it. (And, if you see that I'm misjudging the book, if you think it has some deep or serious meaning that I've missed, please let me know!)

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(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Dr. No: A Novel
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Rabbit Factor [Jäniskerroin] by Antti Tuomainen
  2. The Visiting Professor by Robert Littell
  3. The Anomaly [L'Anomalie] by Hervé Le Tellier
  4. Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks
  5. PopCo by Scarlett Thomas
  6. The Givenchy Code by Julie Kenner
  7. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua
  8. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
  9. The Steradian Trail by M.N. Krish
  10. The Mystic Cipher by Dennis Mangrum
Ratings for Dr. No: A Novel:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
4/5 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHumorous, Adventure/Espionage,
MotifAcademia, Female Mathematicians,
Topic
MediumNovels,

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Exciting News: The total number of works of mathematical fiction listed in this database recently reached a milestone. The 1,500th entry is The Man of Forty Crowns by Voltaire. Thanks to Vijay Fafat for writing the summary of that work (and so many others). I am also grateful to everyone who has contributed to this website. Heck, I'm grateful to everyone who visited the site. Thank you!

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)