World Optimization

My review of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, the fan fiction series by Eliezer Yudkowsky. Really liked this one!

So, fanfiction. As far as I can tell, you either love it or hate it, there’s no middle ground. Personally, I think it’s a really good way for amateur writers to test their skills in the ‘sandbox’ of readymade characters and scenarios. Plus, it makes good light reading- the literary equivalent of binge watching your favourite sitcom. Fifty Shades of Grey, though… Yeah, I’ve read that, and read Twilight, which it’s supposedly based on, and found no resemblance whatsoever. (Though I must admit I skipped some of the, er, juicy parts)

This review is of one of the most popular fanfics around, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I’d read the first chapter ages ago, but it didn’t catch my attention. It seemed much too pompous and slow paced for a fan fiction. Recently, I heard about it again and decided to give it a shot. The first page urges new readers to read till chapter 5 before passing judgement, so that’s what I did. And whoa, that chapter 5 is one of the best situational comedy setups I’ve read! I was hooked. And nearly a month later, I’m finally done with this 120+ chapter epic.

I should start with a disclaimer: This story only really appeals to a certain demographic. If you’re a pseudo intellectual who has ever been called a smartass, give it a shot. If you’re content with the fantasy universe JK Rowling has set up and don’t want your cheerful idyllic bubble to burst, stay away! This work has a generous dose of rationality and logic in its purest theoretical form, so if you’re into that kind of stuff (or want to be), this would be good light reading.

Note- This review has spoilers for JKR’s Harry Potter series, but none for HPMoR (at least, nothing significant)

HPMoR is basically what Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone would be like if magic made sense (sacrilege!). Harry Potter-Evans-Verres is raised by his loving aunt, Petunia Evans-Verres, and his uncle, Professor Michael Evans-Verres. As the son of an Oxford professor, he is a voracious reader and at the age of 10 has finished reading Godel Escher Bach and Feynman’s lectures on physics. When suddenly thrown into the magical world, he immediately begins to question some fundamentals:

  • The Quidditch scoring system is more than a little arbitrary, since the catching of the snitch often makes┬áhours of the other players’ efforts futile.
  • Is there really a correlation between blood purity and the strength of a wizard’s magic? Spoiler alert: It follows Mendelian genetics.
  • Why do broomsticks not follow Newtonian physics?

He also introduces the laws of transfiguration and the Interdict of Merlin, which provide boundaries to the extent of magic and tie up many loose ends. The fic even has a list of scientific references on which much of the logic has been based. Unfortunately, there’s no place in rationalHarry’s world for Ron’s fun antics or Hagrid’s simple loyalty.

This magical experimentation takes up a third of the fic, and to be honest the reiteration of the importance of scientific method gets annoying after a while. However, Harry’s newfound reasoning capabilities enable him to identify Professor Quirrell as dark, and spot Voldemort’s horcrux plot quickly. About halfway through, the science gives way to a fast paced plot with enough twists to keep the average HP addict-in-withdrawal satisfied. There are also frequent references to similar sci-fi/fantasy fiction, like Ender’s Game and Death Note. In fact, there is a series of practice magical battles among the students as part of Defense Against the Dark Arts that is very similar to that shown in Ender’s Game.

HPMoR has a dedicated fan following, and several active discussion groups exist on the Internet. Yudkowsky ended Chapter 114 with a cliffhanger, issuing an open challenge to all readers: Come up with a feasible (read: rational) means of escape from a particularly tight corner that Harry finds himself in, or forfeit the final 8 chapter arc. And fans stepped up, providing inventive, detailed solutions within the stipulated time limit. As promised, the final chapter went up on Pi day- 3/14/15.

I give this book a whole-hearted 5/5, for teaching me and entertaining me in equal measures. The only imperfection was an unnecessary anti- feminist plot arc towards the middle that didn’t contribute much to the storyline- but that can be skipped without any loss of continuity. Give the first five chapters a shot, I promise you’ll be hooked!

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