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Book Review

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Rajiv Ashrafi


I have never felt the need to take fan fiction seriously. They are, at best, exercises of creativity in a predetermined world, and the best of them usually do not stray too far from the established lore. As it stands, “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” is the only exception it has hooked me in so deeply that I just cannot get out of the fascinating world that its author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, has created.

If you have always felt that Rowling's characters, and vision of Hogwarts and magical Britain were lacking then you weren't the only one. They always felt absurd to me as well, lacking coherence and sense in a world that exhibited elitism towards ordinary human beings and looked down at science. The ignorance they displayed is appalling. Yudkowsky addresses these issues with his fantastic fan fiction that offers a whole new take on this universe.

The world remains the same, but with some major differences. Petunia, finally showing some sense, has married a professor at Oxford after she took a 'beauty' potion from her sister. Together they raise Harry Potter with love and affection, instilling in him an undying love for rationality and scientific inquiry. Harry is a child prodigy who is acerbic and downright pedantic at times, but brilliant nonetheless. He is a combination of the qualities of Artemis Fowl and Yagami Light (Death Note), displaying intelligence and wit simply unheard of in an eleven year old boy. He is joined by Hermione, who is instantly marked as his rival and romantic interest, and Draco, who is charming and a smart social manipulator. Ron and Hagrid are blissfully absent since they do not have anything to offer in Yudkowsky's vision of magical Britain; both characters become part of the scenery and do not play any essential roles.

The storyline involves a lot of political maneuvering, social manipulation, being extremely clever, and copious amounts of rationalism. It results in an extremely funny story where Snape gets taken down a notch, Dumbledore is shown to be a clumsy strategist, and McGonagall remains forever flustered by everything that happens around her. Oh, and Harry is a Ravenclaw.

It is a fun and easy read that gets complicated at times. This is due to the fact that Yudkowsky writes about advanced topics such as Bayes's Theorem, cognitive bias, and artificial intelligence, among many things. The simple but academic writing style makes these topics clear and accessible. The plot is intriguing and the author somehow manages to fit 'rational' ideas into every other chapter while still remaining captivating. The story is highly didactic, aimed at teaching you the above mentioned concepts, while at the same time poking fun at the goofier bits of the original series. Yudkowsky is also adept at generating tension that drives the story forward.

That is not to say that the writing isn't without its flaws. Yudkowsky dumps a lot of information on the reader at times, which slows the story down to glacial speeds. The info dumps are especially pronounced at the beginning, but diminish as the story picks up. This also means that external characterisation is relatively sparse. However, their internal thought processes are laid out by the author, offering us insight into what makes them tick. In fact, it works better than you might think, though it's not for all types of readers. Although the final work is concise and well-presented, it still lacks the polish that published works have. That can be fixed in the hands of a capable editor though, who can organise and trim it down to a more enjoyable read than it already is.

“Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” is still an ongoing project that has 77 chapters. It took me about eleven days to absorb it all. It has reintroduced me to rational thinking and changed my outlook towards the world. This 'book' simply cannot be recommended enough if you want to have a terrific time while broadening your horizon by learning about science, philosophy and rationality.


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