Monday, 12 September 2011

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Every generation needs The Ascent of Man, Cosmos or Wonders of the Universe. It needs a documentary series not about the facts of science per se, but about Science. You need a popular work that gets the culture of science across, explaining to people that science feels good and is exciting. In short you need a popular manifesto for a scientific philosophy of life. One such is provided by Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fanfiction written by Eliezer Yudkowsky. I want to explain why I've read this story from start to last update not less than 3 times and why it's had a huge impression on me.

For a start, a few point to stop you getting frustrated with it.

  • No, this isn't that kind of fanfiction. Nobody is fucking anyone improbable. Sorry girls, just not that kind of story. 
  • No, this isn't that kind of fanfiction. The author writes fluently in grammatically sound English sentences. The plots are complicated and clever.
  • If the Harry Potter novels by JKR are very precious to you dont read it. This is a loving fanfic, but sometimes the kind of love that looks at something silly the loved one is doing (like playing quidditch) and mocks it openly. 
  • This also isn't a re-telling of the cannon (ie original) story. The world that JKR created is a backdrop, but for the purpose of telling a new and interesting story the foreground has changed. Firstly the most obvious difference is Harry. Rather than being ... lets face it, a bit whiny, a bit thick, and very very Gryffindor, he's now very aspy, very smart, and very Slytherin.
Now that you've either written the whole thing off as horrid or not been set up to have you expectations shattered, why do I re-read this thing?
  • I really want to find the clues. This is not a children's story, the narrative is complicated and clever, if you're not paying attention it's all nonsense, if you are paying attention it's magical and if you're really really paying attention you can guess some of what's about to happen.
  • I really enjoy reading it because it's so damned nerdy. There are more sci-fi and fantasy references in here than you can shake a stick at. If like me you've never played Dungeons and Dragons (I know, I was a deprived child) you dont feel you're missing out, but feels good to read a story that's so happy with its status as nerdy.
  • It's got a really powerfully expressed philosophy. I know a lot of people hate stories telling them how to think, but there are enough ambiguities and unreliable narrators here that the story isn't so much telling you what to think as it is just telling you *to* think.
  • The outlook for the future of this universe you get after reading this story is a lot better than the one I normally have.
So, what's the story? Aunt Petunia didn't marry Uncle Vernon, she married a biology professor, he raised Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres to be a child prodigy. Not an impossible Mary Sue, just a run of the mill child genius who has read and understood Feynman aged 11. He discovers magic exists and does what any sane person would do, gets very excited and studies it. He sets out to rationally understand magic and harness the combined power of science and magic to decrease worldsuck, conquer the galaxy in the name of science and utility, cancel the second law of thermodynamics and make everyone immortal. If it isn't obvious to you that that is what you would do if you discovered magic then I recommend this story to you, could be interesting to see if it changes your mind.

This is a story that treats a lot of terribly serious issues very lightly. It isn't afraid to openly laugh at things that are strange about the original story, nor to flat tell you that you are stupid. (At one point Harry and Quirril discuss a play in which X happens, Harry points out that no sane person could honestly believe anyone would be so stupid as to do X, Quirril says that nobody else in Britain would notice how stupid X is, and as X is a major plot point in multiple HP novels I tend to agree). 

All in all it's fun, it's not a teacher, you dont have to feel bad, it wont make you feel dumb, it wont set homework. It will hopefully make you think, which is what any good story will do. I cannot recommend it highly enough. And if you enjoyed it, welcome to the conspiracy.

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