Harry Potter and the Methods of RationalityThursday, July 28, 2011 17:58
What’s this, you ask? You’ve read all of the Harry Potter books but have never heard of this one? That’s because Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a work in progress piece of fan-fiction, written by someone under the pen-name Less Wrong. That person is Eliezer Yudkowsky, a prominent American researcher in the field of artificial intelligence and an advocate for transhumanism. Now I ordinarily don’t go anywhere near fan-fiction regardless of how much I may like a series or a setting. It’s a dark recess of the Internet with a well-deserved reputation for terrible writing inspired mostly by the obsession to pair favorite characters into romantic couples, regardless of how little sense that actually makes.
MoR however distinguishes itself from its peers both through the quality of its writing and the strength of its fundamental premise. It’s been endorsed by established sci-fi writer David Brin, been featured on The Atlantic magazine and it is by far the most reviewed story on the popular FanFiction.net website. That’s some heavyweight support and after reading what’s been released so far of it, I agree wholeheartedly. This is something that every person who thinks of himself as a rationalist must read and every person who is a Harry Potter fan ought to read.
Assuming that you are familiar with the canonical Harry Potter story, MoR departs from the canon at one major juncture. Instead of marrying Vernon Dursley, Petunia Evans instead marries Michael Verres, a professor of biochemistry at Oxford University. Their adopted child therefore bears the full name of Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres. This version of Harry lived a happy childhood and thinks of Petunia and Michael as his real parents, while referring to James and Lilly as his genetic parents. Under the guidance of Michael Verres whose family motto is One can never have books! Harry turns out to be a ferociously intelligent child who consumes books voraciously and systematically applies the Scientific Method to everything he encounters.
Since a super-intelligent Harry Potter would demolish all opposition in his path as the author demonstrates in a funny omake chapter, the story compensates by making all the other characters more intelligent than their canon versions as well. For example, when Harry attends Snape’s potions class and encounters his bullying for the first time, he stands up to him and refuses to recognize his authority as a teacher. He challenges Snape to name the number of electrons in the outermost orbit of a carbon atom. Snape surprisingly manages to answer correctly while also adding that the information is completely useless and no student should therefore note it down.
The result of this is a supremely entertaining, hilarious and even thought-provoking look into what happens when you add Enlightenment values into the Romantic world originally conceived by J.K. Rowling. From the moment Harry learns that magic is real and that the fundamental rules of the universe as discovered by science are therefore wrong, he reassures himself that the Scientific Method itself remains intact and resolves to investigate the world of magic using the scrutiny of science. He is initially exasperated by the irrationality of how magic works (“And, and what kind of incantation is Wingardium Leviosa? Who invents the words to these spells, preschool children?”), but soon makes enough progress to be able to do things that were previously believed to be impossible.
Some readers will be disappointed that the story doesn’t track the original books directly. Over the course of the 70+ chapters released so far, covering over 1,000 pages in PDF format, Harry is still in his first year at Hogwarts. However, many elements that originally appeared late in the canon has already shown up, including Time-Turners, Azkaban and Dementors, the Deathly Hallows etc. Some characters who played a major role in the original story are barely present. Ron Weasley for example, is only a bit character as Harry dismisses him during their first meeting since he saw no reason for him to exist. Likewise, Harry chooses not to make the acquaintance of Rubeus Hagrid, because as he admits to Professor McGonagall, he sees no use for him and thinks that they wouldn’t get along. This is after all a Harry Potter that respects only intelligence and cunning.
Other characters have special prominence here. Draco Malfoy turns out to be Harry’s closest friend after Hermione and it appears that it is this three who will form an unlikely trio of friendship. Professor Quirrell ends up being Harry’s adult mentor as this version Harry never grows to trust Dumbledore, believing him to be genuinely insane and perhaps secretly evil. Events of course differ as well. Instead of Quidditch, which Harry realizes is a broken game due to how heavily the Golden Snitch weighs on the final score, the main form of extra-curricular competition are the battles organized by Quirrell as part of his battle magic lessons, in which selected students act as generals who must lead their team to victory. Naturally, Harry is the general of his own team and comes up with ingenious ways to win, such as using transfiguration to create useful Muggle artifacts.
A lot of the fun in this series comes from poking holes in the original one. For example, one character explicitly points out the ridiculousness of the evil plot in Goblet of Fire and comments on how much simpler it would be to just hand the portkey to the chosen target. The author also subtly tells us how a truly smart Voldemort would hide his horcruxes and implies that this is exactly what his version of the Dark Lord does. Early on, Harry learns about the currency system of the Wizarding world and the fixed conversion rates between Galleons, Sickles and Knuts and realizes that a decent hedge fund manager from the Muggle world would own the entirety of the Wizarding economy within a week.
For all its entertainment value however, the series does suffer from flaws of its own. Often, the author gets too caught up with a particular train of thought and goes on far too long along it. While each chapter is individually fun of read, when read as a complete work, the sense of pacing leaves much to be desired. As the author notes himself, this is not a novel so you don’t get the familiar structure of events building up to a head and ending in a climactic resolution. Instead, things just go on and on and on, much as a serial television series and a fan-fiction work published on the Internet would. Finally, I note that the series grows increasingly implausible over time as there is only so much that you can believe an 11-year old to be capable of accomplishing in one year. It would be nice if the author allowed some time to pass by without things of note happening so Harry can get on with his lessons and physically grow up a little.
For my part, I intend to follow it eagerly for as long as the author is interested in continuing it. It’s just far too much fun to miss out on. I also note that other authors have been inspired by this exercise and are trying to do the same thing for other settings and characters, such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. While I doubt that anyone can bring Yudkowsky’s blend of scientific knowledge and writing skill to the table, they will still be interesting experiments to keep a look out for.