I recently finished the current build of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, by Eliezer Yudowsky. It’s an HP fanfiction written by one of the guys behind the Machine Intellegence Research Institute (aka a very, very smart guy). I’ve never given fanfiction a chance before, but the fact that the author is one of the foremost minds in artificial intelligence (and a talented writer to boot) convinced me that it was a worthy read rather than a teenage fantasy. Now it’s one of my favorite works of all time. Here’s three reasons to give it a try:
Watch a Scientist Wreak Havoc with Rowling’s World
HPMOR (as it’s called) is a parallel universe where Harry was raised by an Oxford biochemist, and thus by the time he enters Hogwarts is a child prodigy well-schooled in the scientific method and rational thinking. As a result, he ditches the oafish Ron Weasley in favor of fellow scientist Hermoine Granger (duh) and Draco Malfoy, with whom he shares a keen intellect due to fatherly pressure. . He ends up in Ravenclaw, pledges himself to decode the fundamental science behind magic however possible, and does a whole lot of crazy stuff from the later books all in his first year.
As the only fanfiction I’ve ever read, I found it fascinating to see a familiar world get manipulated by talented hands, instead of the male pregnancy fantasies I understand to be the standard of the genre. Eliezer takes Rowling’s setting and rules of magic seriously, but he is unmerciful with its flaws. Harry dismisses Quidditch outright upon learning of the Snitch’s exorbitant value, and utilizes his Time Turner to the fullest (as any self respecting hero with a friggin time machine should) It’s fascinating to watch the author attempt to make Magical Britain believable through these methods and by tying it in with our modern Muggle world as well.
It also opens up the fundamental question behind fanfiction : should a talented writer choose to work in another’s imagination? Eliezer undoubtedly has the writing chops to write a compelling story on his own- he doesn’t need to play in somebody else’s sandbox to do so. Yet it was probably the right call in this case, because it makes the tale more readable with familiar characters, and because
It Combines Education and Entertainment
This new Harry has an encyclopedic knowledge of modern science, so you’ll find him referencing famous psychological experiments before a decision or shooting down logical fallacies in his fellow characters’ arguments. As a result, the book transcends simple entertainment and becomes educational, as it teaches you the basics of skepticism and rational thought. You could certainly learn all that Harry knows at Eliezer’s other project, the rational database Less Wrong, but the writing there is technical and unforgiving. In HPMOR it is presented as the sidenotes to a compelling yarn, along with characters you already know, with the end result that I’ll likely remember the concepts far better than I would through the nonlinear and non-narrative Sequences.
Thus as a result of reading I found myself pondering the world of rationalism, weighing options and ethics just like back in undergraduate philosophy classes. Harry divides his thought processes into mental personalities who take on the voices of people he’s encountered, and so there’s a Hufflepuff in his head preaching loyalty, a Ravenclaw preaching truth, a Gryffindor preaching heroism, and a Slytherin preaching cunning. The houses are much more balanced in this version, with Gryffindors as heroic fools, and Slytherins representing ambition and politics, rather than just evil. The reclaiming of Slytherin House is a theme in the book, with Harry trying to turn Draco by teaching him the scientific method and pointing out that a hatred of Mudbloods makes their cause weaker through attracting un-intelligent blood purists rather than worthy comrades.
The way in which Harry methodically convinces Draco is a perfect example of how the author combines entertainment (a new take on familiar fiction) with education (in presenting step by step a persuasive, logical argument that’s fair to both sides). Some readers complain that Eliezer’s writing pushes the rationalist angle too strong as Author Tract ( it is overpowering at times), but it’s hard to argue with, well, rational thought.
It Forces You To Confront Rationality
The chunk of Voldemort’s spirit stuck in Harry’s scar helps him think more rationally, too, since Voldie was always cunningly Machiavellian in getting what he wanted, even if it meant sacrificing health or minions. But since such thinking places importance only on results, rather than what other people’s thoughts and feeling, it is Dark in the purest sense of the word. Thus the struggle inside Harry between his rational Dark side and his empathetic light side (he’ll even go so far as to label the slower characters as NPCs [computer controlled units in online computer games] and completely disregard their presence due to them being unable to comprehend what he’s doing )becomes not just a Rowling parallel, but an examination of rationality as well. It made me question whether strict rational thought has room for empathy within it, based as it is on objective science rather than subjective feelings.
Many rationalists I’ve spoken to would choose results over feelings. Phrased as a strict dichotomy, with leaving a positive life legacy at the cost of love on one end (like, say, Alan Turing) or leading a happy caring life without anyone caring after you die on the other (like any well-loved grandparent who worked their whole life as an industrial worker, perhaps). As someone who prizes long term results over short term pleasure myself, I found this a difficult decision. Without emotions, humans are but robots -indeed, you could say caring is what makes us human. But that same precious ‘human condition’ is nothing but a romantic name bestowed on an advanced version of ape group dynamics, evolved to keep us safe from savannah predators. Without objective results, we’d fall prey to our cognitive biases and petty wants for sex, food, and shelter. There has to be a way to live an ambitious life with room in it for emotions.
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, to me, was a powerful parable exploring that duality of rationality and empathy, populated with upgraded versions of the familiar Rowling characters we know and love. And it is one of the most gripping stories I’ve ever read, fanfiction or not. If you thought Atlas Shrugged was a worthy treatise weighed down by wooden writing, you’ve got to give HPMOR a try. But if you’re not into science or it’s forays into effective thought, you’re probably going to hate it. Prevailing sentiment is to try it till Chapter 5 and then give up then if you still don’t like it.