Have you ever, while reading a book, wished that you were the author because it’s so clear that the characters are being stupid and there’s a simple course of action that could make everything okay?
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR), is what happens when someone who co-founded a “community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality” read Harry Potter and felt that way. The result is Eliezer Yudkowsky’s 1983-page, 122-chapter-long tour de force that:
a) Reduces the gargantuan number of significant plot holes in the Potter saga to – in my opinion – just one.
b) Adds internal consistency to a story that, to paraphrase JK Rowling herself, wouldn’t recognise internal consistency if it danced naked in front of it wearing Dobby’s tea cosy.
c) Prevents the villain from turning into a pathetic cartoon that even Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman would have been able to beat.
d) Asks some questions that the characters in the series really should have been asking. Like why Slytherin House is officially allowed by the school to be a breeding ground for bigoted schmucks. Or why Lily Potter’s sacrifice for her son was the only such sacrifice to end up saving anyone from the Killing Curse even though there must have been people throughout history who had made similar sacrifices. Or how, in fact, the magic in the series works because it’s a tad ridiculous that ‘Wingardium Leviosa’ is all it takes to defy that great universal constant: gravity.
What’s the story?
HPMOR is a work of fan fiction, but the good kind, in which the author invests time and effort to pay tribute to the original and yet gives us a brand new story that stands on its own.
It was started more than five years ago and finished this March. Per Rowling’s policy on fan fiction, she will not bring any legal action against the author as long as the book is not commercially distributed. You can access the book for free at Hpmor.com.
HPMOR is a thinking person’s story about magic and heroism. Harry isn’t fostered by idiots who shut him up in a cupboard. Instead, his aunt Petunia marries a biochemist, and they inculcate a love of science and books in Harry, which serves him well in the story.
Dumbledore isn’t just a mysterious old ‘good’ wizard who mentors the hero, but a complex man whose motives are actually unclear for large parts of the narrative and questioned by Harry. Harry attempts to learn how to defeat Voldemort, rather than leaving it to luck and bravery. Hermione is finally the character she deserves to be, with an identity separate from Harry.
Most interestingly, the conflict between good and evil is represented as a battle between knowledge and ignorance, and this gets fascinating characters out of Draco Malfoy, Professor McGonagall and, to some extent, Snape (the character Yudkowsky changes the least, because Snape was, after all, Rowling’s best creation).
This is perhaps best reflected in the fact that the book spans a single year (Harry’s first year at Hogwarts), with characters actually thinking about their future courses of action, instead of blithely letting years go by without freaking out over the fact that the allegedly greatest dark wizard is clearly attempting to come back to power. (I’m looking at you, Prisoner of Azkaban, even though you were perhaps the best of the bunch.)
What makes it work?
Is it perfect? Of course not. Harry can be insufferably arrogant. The writing isn’t going to win any prizes. And there is the one plot hole that I mentioned.
Nevertheless, it’s gripping, thought-provoking and witty (with some brilliant cultural references, such as Dumbledore quoting The Lord of the Rings and the Weasley twins making up a song about Harry to the tune of Ghostbusters).
HPMOR benefits from Yudkowsky’s expertise in rationality and cognitive science – he is one of the principal contributors to a blog sponsored by Oxford University, his LessWrong blog has been referenced by the Guardian, his articles have been published in books on philosophy. But the reason I enjoyed this book so much is different.
When I read the first four Harry Potter books as a 10-year-old, I loved them – it was a time of discovery and wonder that I’ll always be indebted to Rowling for.
But within a year, I’d read Tolkien and started to think more critically about what I was reading, so I became disillusioned with Rowling’s story. But Yudkowsky has managed to write a version that can reconcile these two different iterations of myself, and let me appreciate the Potterverse once again. Now, if he could just rewrite the Star Wars prequels…
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From HT Brunch, October 11
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