Sunday, May 10, 2015

Review of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR) is one of the best-known pieces of fanfiction ever written, meaning it was even read by people like me, who otherwise despise fanfic.  This is my (spoiler-free) review.

I should begin with the caveat that I hardly remember most of HPMOR.  Like much of internet fiction, it has updated very slowly over a long period of time.  I started reading HPMOR over three years ago, and I know because there's something in my blog archives about it.  Frankly it would have been better suited to reading over a short period of time rather than a period of years.  But this is hardly relevant now, because the fanfic has now been completed and you can read it at your leisure.

HPMOR begins as a light-hearted parody of Harry Potter as well as a tutorial on rationalist ideas.  It takes place in an alternate universe where Harry Potter is an incredible genius.  Rather than unquestioningly accepting the magical world revealed to him, Harry applies scientific thinking to it, revealing many absurdities.  Over and over again, he has realizations that apparently nobody else in the history of the wizarding world has thought to consider.

In these early chapters, Harry is obviously an author insert and a Mary Sue.  Despite being 11 years old, he can do no wrong.  Nonetheless, if you simply accept the premise that Harry is unrealistically smart, the same way we accept the premise that there are wizards, HPMOR takes that and goes interesting places with it.  It's okay for Harry to be really smart, and the rest of the world to be really stupid, because we get a lot of laughs, and the rationalist lessons are effective.

As the story moves on, it becomes more serious and enters a thriller cycle. Harry repeatedly gets into impossible predicaments, and the joy is in finding out how he gets himself out.  The rationalist themes also become more mature.  For example, one set of chapters was on the theme of taboo tradeoffs, such as making trades where lives are on the line.  Rather than Harry didactically delivering lessons, he has arguments with other characters, and it's not always clear who is right.  Although at times one suspects that the author still believes Harry is always right.

I consider this gradual maturation to be one of the most appropriate characteristics of HPMOR.  It mirrors the intellectual development of someone who has encountered rationalist/skeptical ideas for the first time (as many in fact do when reading HPMOR).  At first, it's exciting to learn about all these fallacies and cognitive biases.  Everything seems so straightforward, and everyone else seems blind.  But then over time you realize, stuff is complicated, and maybe you don't really know what you thought you knew!

Now for the bad stuff: Wizard battles.  These battles are deliberately riffing on the part of Ender's Game where all the kids at the military school have team battles in zero G.  But as I saw it, the point of those battles was to distract all the kids with pointless masculinity contests as a twisted way to turn kids into military generals.  None of the details of the battles actually mattered.

The wizard battles in HPMOR read like someone who adored Ender's Game for all those details.  The battles occur repeatedly, and every time as multi-chapter epics.  It was lots and lots of tactical details, with hardly any thematic content except the glorification of competition.

The emptiness of these sections I felt also poisoned the rest of the fic, as it became clear that none of Harry's trials really matter.  So Harry plays escape artist by transfiguration again by transfiguring X into Y.  So what?  What do I get out of it?  (You might be starting to see why I despise fanfic.)

I have very little connection to other readers of HPMOR, but my sense is that many fans were disappointed with the ending.  Why?  According to Hallquist, the particular way Harry gets out of the final predicament is unsatisfying because it involves the evil overlord behaving like a typical evil overlord (i.e. stupidly).

This can be seen as a failure of HPMOR to do what it was trying so hard to do.  But I feel that only highlights how little I cared about what it was trying to do.  The tactical details of how Harry wins in the end is not important to me at all.  That some of the "smart" characters sometimes behave stupidly is not at all surprising, and if anything, it should have happened far more frequently.

Thematically speaking, I felt the ending had a lot going for it.  As you may know, one of the fatal character flaws of the canonical Voldemort is that he utterly fears death.  The author of HPMOR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, is also known for fearing death, and is entirely serious about advocating immortality technology, such as cryogenics.  This leads to some good dialogue between HPMOR and the canon about death.

I also like how Voldemort is portrayed as a dark reflection of Harry's rationalism, with all the intelligence but without the morals.  This seems like the most fitting end to a fic about rationality.