Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

March 2, 2011 at 2:36 am | Posted in Essays | 2 Comments

I’ve never written about fan fiction here, but I’ve never read fan fiction as good as Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality before, either. I guess there’s a first time for everything. I take a position of moderate snobbishness about fanfic: I believe people who say there’s some really good stuff that I’d enjoy reading, but I don’t know how to find it without plowing through a bunch of stuff I won’t like, so I don’t try. It’s nothing personal, fan fiction. If you replace “don’t” with “rarely” that pretty much describes my attitude toward mainstream fiction, historical fiction, etc.

I made an exception and tried reading Methods of Rationality because I was led to believe it was funny. Someone quoted from passages that amounted to criticism of Rowling’s worldbuilding encased in a narrative. Having been known to rant about this myself, I gave it a try. There were indeed some sections that pick some deserving nits, as I expected. What I did not expect was that I would enjoy the actual story tremendously, indeed, far more than I enjoyed the Harry Potter books.

A quick summary of my feelings about Harry Potter is perhaps in order, since apparently I never reviewed any of them here (I could have sworn I reviewed Deathly Hallows…ah, apparently I just wrote a long comment on Abigail Nussbaum’s interesting essay). I enjoyed the Harry Potter books and read all of them, but was never a huge fan. In theory I liked the way the series grew with its readers, but in practice I felt that Rowling’s strengths were better suited to the earlier, younger books…her paper-thin worldbuilding became more of a problem for me the more seriously I was supposed to take the story, culminating in a metaphysical climax whose metaphysics I didn’t respect. But it must be said few writers have concluded a long series without going off the rails, or at least sparking a serious backlash from fans, so I was really impressed she nailed the dismount.

What’s different about Methods of Rationality? The biggest difference is Harry Potter. In this story, his aunt married an Oxford professor and he grows up in a loving home voraciously reading science (and science fiction). What’s more, he’s a genius, a child prodigy of Ender-like proportions who has read and can even quote from dozens of collegiate-level books on science. I was never convinced Ender was a young boy, and I don’t believe for a second this Harry is just eleven, but so often as a reader I’m burdened with characters who are frustratingly stupid that I’m willing to suspend disbelief if that’s what it takes to read about characters who are genuinely smart (other people saying they are smart doesn’t count). Harry Potter-Evans-Verres, as he is named in this story, is genuinely…relentlessly…smart, as are many of the other characters.

The conceit here is the same as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Harry takes his massive knowledge of modern science and, in particular, the scientific method to the pre-enlightenment culture of Hogwarts. This is the perfect setup for the sort of nitpicking I discussed before, and Harry reasons through, with devastating effect, the implications of original Harry Potter series’ depiction of everything from banking to Quidditch to ghosts to snake-talking.

This nitpicking can be fun, but it also serves as a vehicle for education. The author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, is what you might call an evangelical rationalist in the Dawkins mold, and he is upfront that he hopes readers will, by reading his story, learn about the conclusions of modern scientific research as well as the very methods of rationality alluded to in the title. Personally, I was familiar with much of the research that Yudkowsky explains through Harry’s mouth, but I would be lying if I claimed not to have learned some things. Although Yudkowsky probably views this as the most important part of his work, for me it’s the least interesting. Thankfully, Yudkowsky avoids the trap (so common in science fiction) of turning Harry into someone smug and perfect, either adored or hated for being special. Instead, Harry makes bad choices and while other characters respect his talents, they tend to do so the way they might respect a loaded gun. Further, while Harry’s knowledge is special, his intellect is not. He may be preternaturally intelligent, but Hermione, Draco, and most especially Professor Quirrell get similar upgrades and can hold their own as later chapters involve increasingly complex webs of intrigue.

Methods of Rationality breaks with typical preachy fiction in another way in that it proves to be surprisingly funny. Reading Bujold’s A Civil Campaign years ago, I was struck while reading the dinner party scene how rarely I see comedic set pieces done well in science fiction (that dinner party being a wonderful exception). Perhaps I don’t read the right books, but in any case, the clothes-fitting scene very early in Methods was, if quite a bit less complicated than Bujold’s party, just as funny for what it was.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality starts out as a satire, becomes a comedy, then turns into an intrigue story, and at present has increasingly grappled with how to live ethically in a world where the consequences of one’s actions aren’t obvious. I say “at present” because, alas, it’s not finished, though at about 400,000 words it’s within hailing distance of the length of the first four Harry Potter books, so rest assured there’s plenty of material here already. The story is being published in serial format, with new chapters being released reasonably frequently. Think of it like an on-going television show. Since there’s still some way to go before any ending, this is a recommendation and not, in the end, a review. When the story is finished I expect to have a lot to say about the answers provided to the questions the story currently is asking about death, justice, heroism, and morality, but for now I invite you to find out for yourself.

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