Be careful now, the following link can corrode your time. Yes, worse than TV Tropes. I’ve been staying up way too late the last few nights reading it. Here it is: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality,by Eliezer Yudkowsky. You’ve been warned.
It’s a retelling of the Harry Potter story… if Harry was a prodigy of rationality, filled with near-adult understanding of logic and science, and possessing both the brilliance and impish wit of Richard Feynman.
Harry doesn’t live with the mediocre Dursleys… in this universe Petunia married an Oxford biochemist, and Harry is quite happy with his parents. He goes to Hogwarts and, naturally, is Sorted into… Ravenclaw, along with Hermione. And he despises Ron Weasley and befriends Draco Malfoy, and considers becoming a Dark Lord…
It most reminds me of an old sf novella, “In Hiding” by Wilmar Shiras, about a small group of hyperintelligent children. Very few stories get across the sensation of what it’s like to be very intelligent, but these do. (Which is a mystery… maybe few really smart people write stories?)
The book takes the opportunity to give lightning tours of all sorts of issues of rationality, from the elementary scientific method to Bayesian probability to timeless quantum mechanics, all in the context of Harry attempting to confront a universe that turns out to work very differently from what he’d imagined. He’s shocked, but also delighted: a scientist loves a good puzzle. Plus he’d like to fuse magic and science and become a god. And help everyone else become one, too.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, though the Hogwarts characters he meets are based on Rowling’s, they’re all rather smarter, and though Harry overturns many of their expectations they are up to the challenge. So far his most important mentor has been Prof. Quirrell (who’s rather a dolt in Rowling’s version).
Describing it, it seems like it shouldn’t work. But Yudkowsky is really a hell of a writer. Though his passion is rationality and his prose is never lyrical, he’s very good at getting into the minds of various different characters, and above all at one of the things beginning writers (especially those with A Message) fail to master: making the antagonists into worthy rivals.
Yudkowsky uses the four Houses as symbols of whole personalities: Gryffindor is for would-be heroes; Ravenclaw for the studious; Hufflepuff for the friendly and hard-working; Slytherin for the ambitious strivers. His Harry is torn between Ravenclaw and Slytherin– though he has good thoughts about all four. It’s not hard to make Ravenclaw into an attractive portrait; it’s a heaven for geeks. What’s more interesting is that he makes an excellent case for Slytherin. It’s not just for nasty people and Dark Lords.
This is best seen by contrasting his and Rowling’s treatment of Draco Malfoy. Draco is described as what a nice young boy would be like if he had Darth Vader as a doting father. He’s prejudiced, yes, but he’s quite smart, and he’s been well trained in leadership and diplomacy; he has near-instinctive social skills that geekish Harry can barely understand. And he has some valid reasons to distrust Dumbledore and the Gryffindors. Harry can see that he could go bad, and he makes it one of his many missions to get him past his prejudices and to choose good.
Rowling’s Draco is simply a little bully, fated to be ever the foiled foil to heroic, unstoppable Harry. Rowling is not without moral depth– after all, the main lesson of Book One is not to take unpleasantness and greasy black hair as signs of Evil– but Draco is ultimately a pathetic figure, a near-meaningless pawn for Voldemort. There isn’t really anything her Harry could learn from him.
Yudkowsky’s version of rationality can be bracingly close to Slytherin cunning. Harry likes plotting; he understands the appeal, the fun, of making other people do things, and with plenty of experience of being smarter than everyone around him, he sees the appeal of looking down on the rest of the world. But he has a strong sense of justice too, and won’t countenance sadism, abuse, or death.
It’s tempting to say that Yudkowsky’s vision is actually more compelling than Rowling’s– that he makes a more interesting Harry, certainly a more interesting Draco and Slytherin, and more realistic versions of most of the magic. (The Sorting Hat, for instance, can talk not because it’s really sentient, but because it borrows intelligence from the mind of the child it’s on.)
But that’s not really right. Rowling is I think more inventive; she after all created this whole sprawling, fascinating, amusing and horrifying world, as well as these compelling characters. And her approach to magic is in its own way as much an act of deconstruction as Yudkowsky’s. If magic really worked like this, of course it would replace technology, and be used all day long in a thousand creative ways. And things like the anti-Muggle sentiments and the house elves show a modern horror of old medieval ways. The annoying kind of magic is that of too many novels and video games: epic fantasy minus Christianity, minus medieval technology, but plus magic, dragons, and dwarves. Magic is effectively free energy, and it would transform medieval society as much as science did.
Anyway, there’s lots more to say, but I’d really like to go read Chapter 51. And if you’re the type of person who likes my blog, you should go and read Chapter 1.