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Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, by Eliezer Yudkowsky (fanfiction.net)
223 points by robertk on Nov 12, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 87 comments

It sounds crazy, but as someone who reads a lot of fiction (and very little fan fiction, because most of it's crap), I sincerely think this is one of the best things I've read in years. I'd personally rank it up with Asimov or Heinlein at their best.

If you're the kind of person, upon discovering a 'wizarding world' would:

- Look into establishing arbitrage between the wizards' fixed ratio of Gold/Silver currency and the muggles' variable ratio

-Try to discover the underlying laws and mechanics of magic

-Use a time machine to prove/disprove P == NP

Read this Book!

As someone who also reads a lot of fiction, I think this fic is in great need of a good editor... but that after the normal publication process it would be as good as anything Asimov or Heinlein wrote.

Have you read Asimov recently?

In the cold light of adulthood it is unfortunately not as good as my inner child remembers. Nowhere near as bad as Rowling, who is an awful writer, but still pretty bad. To be fair to Rowling her first book actually introduced some good ideas, the rest were pretty much universally crap.

Some of Asimov's themes and ideas are also feeling very dated now too, he seemed to be heavily influenced by the US/Russia situation and early electronics and those inspirations have not stood the test of time.

A visionary in his time and for a generation afterwards, but I'm starting to doubt he'll be much read in 10 or 20 years time.

"Nowhere near as bad as Rowling, who is an awful writer, but still pretty bad. To be fair to Rowling her first book actually introduced some good ideas, the rest were pretty much universally crap."

What? Excuse me, are you serious? Rowling is a very good writer. In terms of style and plotting, the latter of which isn't always perfect, but definitely not as awful as you make out. And why on earth are you measuring her in terms of "ideas" such as historical context, she wrote a series of children and teen's books, which happen to possess a cross-over appeal to adults due to their quality. Harry Potter isn't hard science fiction, and I do find your seeming inability to find simple pleasure in reading such a (in my view) charming series quite disheartening.

@ araneae and mattmanser

I really thought Hacker News was a more intellectual place, than to condone empty blanket statements like "their writing is crap".

Please, if you are going to state something, especially in a thread regarding rationality, please back it up.

If you're going to posture as an amateur writing critic, thinking about the social context of Asimov's writing, you probably shouldn't also condemn a writer loved by readers, writers, and critics as "pretty much universally crap". It's counter-cultural and pretentious yet very shallow, and so you lose a lot of credibility as a critic.

Is it really controversial to say that Asimov had a bad prose style and is primarily an idea or conceptual writer?

I mean, look at http://www.google.com/search?num=100&q=asimov%20%22prose... . These people aren't making it up; Asimov will never be praised for his striking style, magnificent metaphors, or lucid descriptions, like, say, Gene Wolfe is.

Pretty sure he was defending Rowling, not Asmiov.

His writing is pretty bad in the original Foundation trilogy, but it was his early work. He got a lot better later on. Have you read Stephen King's first novel, Carrie? The writing is awful.

And yes, there are a lot of direct cold war references in something like Fantastic Voyage II that make it seem outdated, but I think that his really futuristic stuff doesn't have that flaw.

Sadly, because it is fan fiction, it will never be published.

But because it's fan fiction, I wouldn't object if, after the story finishes, someone produced their own edit of it.

Oh wow, there you are.

I just wanted to say that I absolutely love this series of Harry Potter stories. Awesome. Brilliant. Genius. This is as someone who does read a lot as well. It's really, really, really excellent. It's the only mostly static website on the web which I go and manually check every couple of days, excited at the thought that maybe there's a new chapter up. It's like having a child's Christmas every few days. I love it.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I hope I'm not raining on your Christmas, but if you register at FanFiction.net, you can subscribe to get an email whenever a new chapter is posted. That way you find out about new chapters quickly, and you don't have to check manually. That's what I do, anyway. There's also an unofficial RSS feed:


I actually built a feed-builder: http://ffnetupdates.inklesspen.com/

Sign up (no email or password, just a UUID), track as many authors or stories as you like in one Atom feed. It will let you know when wordcount changes even if there's no new chapter, or when your favorite author has a new story.

Oh, I know about the RSS feed, I just prefer it this way. :-)

Highly irrational, but I understand and approve!

What's rational depends entirely on what you want. For someone who enjoys the excitement of periodically checking FanFiction.net to see if HP:MoR has been updated, it's a deliciously rational thing to do.

"Thanks," he said in the small, awkward voice of someone who'd never quite figured out how to take a compliment like that gracefully.

It strikes me as slightly ironic that this book is so popular here. After all, it's in praise of rationality, whereas HN is a community of entrepreneurs; A profession where the odds against you are so great that you almost couldn't get out of bed in the morning without delusions of grandeur, or at least a healthy dose of narcissism.

Right, and the main character of this story never faces heavy odds, nor tries to do anything ambitious, and nobody in his universe ever accused him of having delusions of grandeur... I gotta ask here, have you read up to Chapter 5?

Nope, didn't read it. I didn't realize the book touched on this, though it wasn't meant as a criticism of the book (or HN) anyway.

Ahem. You don't happen have that .tex template hanging around that was used to produce the .pdf? Because it's absolutely beautiful and I would like to co-opt the template for my NaNoWriMo novel :D.

That would be Bogdan Butnaru's work. Email me and I'll forward your email to him.

I'll be honest: I read a lot of fiction too. And this is awful. (Note: giving it up at chapter 3.)

Everything so far has followed this pattern:

* 1) Set-up. * 2) Harry demonstrates his special, unique smarts.

Of course, step two is the far more important of the two.

Combine that with a ridiculously over-the-top amount of name-dropping (more citations than a doctorate!). (I admit, I did have a soft spot for the Flubber reference; it was instantly ruined by the AD&D one that followed -- and if "+6 thingamabobie" wasn't explicit enough for you, the entire next paragraph was about AD&D.)

This is not storytelling: "And she told him of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Dark Lord, Voldemort." Bleargh. And following it up with an academic citation WRT the bystander effect: WTF?

Anyway, everyone has opinions; that's just mine. Story should come first, and wish-fulfillment fantasies second. (Not that they can't add to a story!)

Just to clarify, you're judging this story after only 3 chapters? Because if you want to get an accurate impression of the story, you should push past chapter 5 at least. The tone of the story evolves considerably, and you might find you like it after all. (Though to quote the author, "If you still don't like it after Chapter 10, give up.")

Yes: I set it aside very early on.

I'm quite certain the story will change & evolve. However, I'm rather sceptical that the writing quality will.

Part of why I gave it up so early is purely on me: I am a sucker for a page-turner -- once a plot picks up a certain amount of steam, I have a near-compulsion to finish. This is the case even if, upon reflection, I don't like the writing, characters, events, etc...

Nothing less fun than coming out of a reading binge at 3am on a work night reading a book you didn't like!

edit: Random sampling in future chapters reveals great heapings of soliloquy and dialectic. I don't feel too bad about setting it down.

> Nothing less fun than coming out of a reading binge at 3am on a work night reading a book you didn't like!

Oh this has happened to me far far too many times...

If it helps, MoR's plot is fairly episodic and doesn't start to pick up steam until about chapter 16

I'd add an "I loved it" but honestly, I liked a lot of the things you disliked, so YMWPV.

I agree though, the writing is sub-par. It somehow sounds far too american to quite fit into the Harry Potter canon, in my opinion.

Since the author wasn't interested in trying to fit into canon, that doesn't seem to be a fair basis for dismissing his/her writing.

However, there are plenty of others (standard IMO disclaimer applies). ;)

(As a very quick & somewhat quantitative example, look at how many words the author spent on the contrasting views & strained relationship of Ma Potter & Pa Potter WRT magic in the first chapter, vs. the approximately zero words spent on that same topic in the second chapter when magic is demonstrated directly for them.)

If you like his writing, see also "Three Worlds Collide":


I love HP and the Methods of Rationality, and absolutely hated "Three Worlds Collide" because

a)It was very contrived, and

b)Rape will never be legal, sorry, unless it's an anti-feminist society similar to some Arab countries, which that society wasn't. I know it's just one little thing, but that completely killed the suspension of disbelief for me.

It's contrived because the goal of the story was to get people to think about metaethics. It's still pretty good for entertainment value though.

b) was a reference to http://lesswrong.com/lw/xm/building_weirdtopia/

There was some discussion of this when the chapter was posted. The rape idea was really weird, but it made more sense after reading some of the discussion:

http://lesswrong.com/lw/y8/interlude_with_the_confessor_48/q... http://lesswrong.com/lw/y8/interlude_with_the_confessor_48/q... http://lesswrong.com/lw/y8/interlude_with_the_confessor_48/q...

I've read the comments, and the point still stands. There's a reason that I had never heard of a "weirdtopian" novel before. If something is outside of the scope of what humans are capable of, it's very jarring to one's suspension of disbelief. Just because it fits with his desire to make it weirdtopian doesn't mean I like it any better.

But isn't the basic idea that, through genetic engineering et al, we can become a species other than our own? I can't fault a science fiction story for showing the possible sociological consequences of scientific progress, no matter how much I don't "like" the direction science or society is taking—that's the whole point of science fiction, after all.

People like to have protagonists with "human" values to root for in stories—in fact, it can be said that consuming narrative is basically how humans indulge in pretending to believe their own far values (by identifying with characters that act on those far values as if they were near, and then "liking" the works of writers that cause those identifiable characters to "win" the story—or, alternatively, that cause characters without those values to "lose", as in tragedies.) That's the reason that any setting, no matter how fantastic (D&D, 40k, HHGTTG) still has (something that acts and thinks like) modern-day humans. However, if you really think in Hard sci-fi terms, you begin to realize that there's no good, probable explanation for "the future" being such a setting without further, conscious intervention on our part to retain our current values (see Eliezer's "Theory of Fun" sequence.)

I'm not sure it's possible to argue someone into enjoying a work of fiction.

I explained why it didn't work for me. Any work of fiction- the successful ones, anyway- will always be about people. If they're too different of a people (genetically engineered out of their humanness), then people simply won't enjoy it.

There's a reason that there are virtually no popular science fiction novels where the protagonist is an alien that has a completely different value/mating systems to us. I got like a page into a story about an alternate history of Earth where birds resembling jacanas (a species where the females are behaviorally like the males of other species and v.v.) were the intelligent species on the planet. Then I realized that no-one could ever relate to or care about my characters. They were just too alien. That isn't to say there can't be great fiction where the conflict between alien races is over that difference, like 3 worlds, (Ender's Game comes to mind), but the point is always to reaffirm what it means to be human. You just can't do that if the humans in your book are alien.

I'm not suggesting that you should enjoy it. It's not escapism; it's not intended to pass mindlessly into your amygdala. It's meant to be a serious, critical analysis of the consequences of doing such a thing—a satire, in other words. you're meant to come away with it with an opinion on whether or not doing this—becoming alien in this way, having these irreconcilably different values—is a good thing or not.

...which was, oddly enough, the plot of the story itself! The protagonists decided that the values of the Baby Eaters were a bad thing; and, likewise, the Super Happy people decided that the values of the protagonists were a bad thing. One day, our future, alien selves might decide that our current values are a bad thing, and, likewise, if we see their (potential) values as bad enough, we might consider not allowing such a positive feedback loop toward new values to take place at all.

Except (spoiler alert) the central conflict of the story is that the humans don't even remotely want to go through that kind of change, even though it's scientifically possible. Which means that you have biologically stock humans who are allowed to rape each other, not futuristic bioengineered posthumans who just happen to not mind being raped.

It wasn't even an especially important or relevant part of the plot. It's not an unusual, or especially heinous sin for SF to be tone deaf about how actual human beings function, but supposing that any kind of peaceful society would allow rape is pretty absurd.

If you think legalized rape is outside of what humans are capable of, you're not up on current events.

If you mean that an individual human couldn't view sex as something outside themselves, then maybe.

Huge, huge, HUGE upvote. Three Worlds Collide is amazing.

And if you like that, check out "Life Artificial":


That was great! A previous discussion about "Three Worlds Collide:" http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1387771

If you're not careful when you read it, you miss the True Ending: http://lesswrong.com/lw/yb/true_ending_sacrificial_fire_78/

    Use a time machine to prove/disprove P == NP
Hold up. P==NP is only proved if you have a time machine.[1] It's still unknown in story if you can do it with a conventional, causal, turing machine.

Also note that Harry is either ahead of the times (he doesn't mention the Moravec paper in-story) or very, very au courant, being perhaps the only eleven year old in the world to be reading preprints of theoretical computer science papers while also attending wizarding school.

1: http://www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/~hpm/project.archive/general.artic...

Actually, it happens to be true that all eleven-year-olds attending wizarding school read preprints of theoretical computer science papers.

<snicker>. Though your statement does feel a bit like dereferencing a NULL-pointer, as in GetAllElevenYearOldsAtWizardingSchool()->doesReadTheoreticalCompSciPapers() should blow up... (Well, at least in the world of bare-metal C, any sane language will of course return an empty collection, and not a NULL pointer to the first function....)

Then you did a very unrealistic job representing each and every other young wizard in your writing.

You're missing Eliezer's little joke. In classical logic, usually any predicate is True of a non-existent entity.

There are no 11 year olds who attend wizarding school, hence it is True that all such creatures read CS preprints. (Like it is True that unicorns have one horn.)

I was also joking in that in Eliezer's fictional work he writes prolifically about 11 year olds who attend wizarding school and there is precisely one who reads them.

Perhaps a </joke> would have been necessary.

It's not bad as far as fiction goes. It's straight awesome compared to just about all other fanfic. It's main problem is that it's front loaded with all of the authors non-fiction blog posts on transhumanism. The story is stalled repeatedly by the Rand-like "John Galt" speeches by the Potter character especially.

Which is rather ironic, given Harry's dismissal of Atlas Shrugged in one of the early chapters.

HPMOR has hit HN front page on at least 3 occasions (including this one). That in itself tells you how good this thing really is. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1385932 http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1668766

"I'd personally rank it up with Asimov or Heinlein at their best."

There's also a healthy dose of Pratchett, acknowledging the fundamental silliness of magic.

But perhaps it is J. K. Rowling who should get credit for doing the acknowledging. If you write "students are given time machines so they can attend more classes" and no one in-universe points this out as odd, that's Harry Potter. If a fanfiction has someone notice how odd this is, that may bear a greater stylistic resemblance to Terry Pratchett, but the core silliness was still J. K. Rowling's idea to start with...

What I like about this novel that is not directly related to rationality, is that Eliezer pays a lot of attention to the motivation of the "villains". Why would anyone want to be a Death Eater? Why on earth do Malfoy or Crabbe & Goyle act the way they do. Completely unconvincing in the original, (and almost all villains in Hollywood movies for that matter), but in MoR they have a convincing motivation for why they act the way they do.

This is really a pet peeve of mine - nobody thinks they're the villain, not Hitler, not Bin Laden, not Timothy McVeigh, nobody. Comic villains and Bond villains are just silly, impossible for me to take seriously. So writers must give an explanation for their villains' evil acts that is distinct from "because they're evil". Most writers don't, but Eliezer Yudkowsky does, and it's a breath of fresh air.

Well, he did also write [Are Your Enemies Innateley Evil](http://lesswrong.com/lw/i0/are_your_enemies_innately_evil/)

That's silly. Authors are allowed to forgo describing the childhood traumas and deep-seated desires of every character they introduce. They shouldn't have to choose between making every character a fully explored main character or a transparent cardboard prop.

As for the Malfoys, it's clear to anyone who read the books that they are not one-dimensional villains. Crabbe and Goyle might be, but they were never important.

Recently re-read it myself. A tip for new readers -- if you find this version of Harry insufferable, yet the basic concept makes you keep reading, wait for around Chapter 20, where a much-needed mentor helps him learn some self-control.

Thanks for the tip. I'm slowly reading this aloud with my wife, and she's pretty distracted with Harry's flaws.

she's pretty distracted with Harry's flaws

She must have had a hell of a time with JK Rowling's version then...

Discussed previously on HN: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1385932

There are some links to an ePub version if anyone's interested (I enjoyed it).

It also looks like the author regularly appends new content. I'm going to need to re-read this!

Also, some kind soul is maintaining an RSS feed for chapter updates, since FF.net seems to be stuck in the last decade: http://demented.no-ip.org/~feep/rss_proxy.cgi?5782108

The thing that I find the most interesting is that a few people on the fanfiction groups I frequent absolutely loathe the story, and there's a sizable group that are ambivalent to it. What I haven't seen, however, is anyone here or on reddit criticize it in any way.

Probably because this is not really Harry Potter fanfiction - the main character of this story is not Harry Potter, so many aspects of the story are radically changed from canon, the author even admits to not having read some of the books, etc. Harry is your basic self-insert in this situation.

So this isn't really fanfiction - it's original fiction set in the Harry Potter universe, and I guess that's what makes it appeal to readers who don't follow fanfiction, and repels some people that do.

Along similar lines is Alicorn's Luminosity[1], which replaces Bella's character from the Twilight series with someone more rational and introspective. Where MoR was based on Eliezer's sequences on Rationality, Luminosity is based on Alicorn's sequence on Luminosity.


The characters here don't depart any further than those in, say, A Black Comedy or The Wastelands of Time, both of which are a lot further from canon than MoR, widely acclaimed by some (including me), and not much hated by others that I've ever seen. "It violates canon!" is a rationalization of a strong ick reaction for other reasons. There may be parts of this that I don't fully understand, but I'm reasonably sure of that part.

I’m very confused by the often very vitriolic criticisms from some avid fanfiction fans. Is MoR violating some kind of fanfiction etiquette I as an outsider don’t get?

Some seem to be very annoyed whenever they think MoR veers too far from canon which I don’t understand at all. What do I care about canon as long as it makes sense internally? Picking and choosing certain ideas from the existing material while dropping or changing others – even radically – seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do if executed correctly.

A quick taxonomy of fanfic (from someone who spent way too much time in HP fandom in college):

fill-in-the-blanks: This is a story that tells parts of the original work's backstory. The custom is to try scrupulously to maintain canon compatibility -- ie ensure that your work, and the original works, could be presented as a unified whole without contradiction. Fernwithy (http://www.sugarquill.net/index.php?action=profile&id=50...) writes beautifully in this mode, is very careful about maintaining consistency, and has only started writing stories set in the future of the series since the 7th book closed the canon up.

The future fic: This is the sort of thing authors do because they're impatient for the next installment of canon. They try to write the next installment themselves. Again, consistency is considered important. Usually there's some wish-fulfillment, not so much in terms of self-insertion, but in terms of the author taking the story where they wished it would go, especially by pairing two characters the author likes together.

After the End(http://www.sugarquill.net/read.php?chapno=1&storyid=619) and The Letters of Summer(http://www.phoenixsong.net/fanfiction/story/53/) are both good examples.

Once the next installment of canon comes out, the future fic is usually retroactively labelled AU, or alternate universe.

The single-point-of-departure AU: "For want of a nail, the horse was lost..." -- the author picks a very specific time and place in canon in which something goes differently, and then tells the story from there. Even here, consistency is prized, unless you can justify how the change arose from the point of departure. I haven't read much in this mode, so I don't have any immediate suggestions.

A strangely specific variant of the single-point-of-departure is the Peggy Sue, in which a main character travels back in time, inhabits the body of his/her young self, and redoes everything using their knowledge of future events. Harry Potter and the Nightmares of Futures Past (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/2636963/1/Harry_Potter_and_the_N...) and Harry Potter and the Wastelands of Time (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/4068153/1/Harry_Potter_and_the_W...) are both examples. Peggy Susie (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/5731071/1/Peggy_Susie) is a one-shot parody of this genre by MoR's author.

The crack-fic: The author takes the story miles into left field, usually played for laughs. How Hogwarts Became a Nudist Colony (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/2179136/1/How_Hogwarts_Became_a_...) or Potter Puppet Pals (http://www.potterpuppetpals.com/newppp/channels/TroubleAtHog...) are prime examples. No rules here but the rule of Funny.

MoR doesn't fit neatly into any of these categories, but starts out sounding a lot like it's going to be a single-point-of-departure AU (the notes at the top of the first chapter have now been edited to specifically disclaim this). MoR is an example of, well, taking another author's universe, using the bits you like, and changing whatever you need to change to tell the story you want to tell, in the manner you want to tell it. It shares this "genre" with most comic reboots, Homer, Milton, the Bible, the brothers Grimm, Disney -- basically a huge chunk of western culture. But it still doesn't quite fit into the set of genres commonly seen in HP fanfic.

Actually the initial reception of MoR from what I was was that it was a crackfic/humor piece. The first few chapters are, after all, hilarious. And people expected more of the same. There was quite a bit of confusion later on when it became apparent that the story was meant to be serious.

Heh, I seem to recall Eliezer saying something about how the story was going to be played completely straight, and then out of nowhere, Harry bit his teacher, and he realized it was going to be a humor piece.

I thought of it as more of a parody, almost; things that were major plot points only because they were hidden from the reader are presented up front (Harry's invisibility cloak being special, or the time turner, or the DADA instructor curse) which makes them be pretty pointless to any actual plot. This makes them funny.

Beyond that (and of course Harry being, well, a nerd) it's not awful for canon. Sure, there's a bit more over the top characterization (Dumbledore gets hit really hard by this, and the kids only act 11 when convenient) but that's not really canon-related.

I guess there's probably a bit much "Ender's Game at Hogwarts", though.

This is ridiculously awesome piece of fiction. If your friends are of the sort where logic at least partially underlies their thinking and behavior more so than it does most folks, then you will really love this.

Bewarned, it's very well written and fun(ny). You may fall out of your chair with laughter

And do read the Sequences on Less Wrong: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Sequences

Highly recommended to anyone who hasn't been reading it. I'm impatiently awaiting new chapters...there are quite a few interesting directions it can go in after the last sequence.

I suspect the hardest part of plotting this story must not have been changing Harry, but changing Voldemort. How on earth could someone capable of challenging the advanced Harry manage to lose so thoroughly against only Rowling canon good-guys?

Not sure how far you've read, but it is not at all certain that Voldemort wants to challenge Harry. Whatever his plans are for Harry, they don't involve killing him -- at least not in the near term.

I meant challenge as in, be up to the job of opposing him. This Voldemort does oppose Harry's plans, long term, largely because he doesn't get the idea of making the world better for everyone, he just wants out.

The methods Harry would employ would achieve Voldemort's aims as well, and if Voldemort's horcruxes work as advertised, he shouldn't care too much about the time frame.

Sure, and Harry would see that. Voldemort would not. He wants a subverted Harry on his side, but he doesn't care about rebuilding the universe to be nice.

Wow, I've read the first three chapters, and this is so good. And I have always despised the Harry Potter books. Next time someone tells me that art would no longer be produced unless copyright guaranteed a way to monetize it, I'm going to point them at this masterpiece.

Wow! I never expected to see this posted here. I'm a closet Harry Potter fanfiction reader, and I loved this story. I think it's time to re-read this again.. be back in a while.

Pro tip: Because of the smallish text size and full-screen layout (which gives some of us absurdly unfriendly line lengths), I find Safari's "Reader" feature to be indispensable in reading this fic.

The row of buttons on the top right allows you to decrease the measure and increase leading as well as font size. Your setting will be remembered (presumably only if you allow cookies).

Why they give you this ability but have absolutly horrible defaults will probably be forever their secret.

Or just increase your font size and use a window that's not full screen. Ctrl-+ increases font size in Chrome, shift-WheelScrollDown in Firefox, Shift-WheelScrollUp in Konqueror.

Or use bookmarklets like Readability: http://lab.arc90.com/experiments/readability/

Or send it to Instapaper.

There are very few websites that I prefer reading in the original form, as opposed to in one of the above formats. I wonder what that says about the state of web design.

Not much, it says more about your personal preferences than it does about web design.

Someone needs to write a "Frodo Baggins and The Methods of Rationality".

Wish I could find a single page to read offline.

It doesn't always include the latest chapters immediately, but here you go:


Greasemonkey with this script: http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/33325 .

It adds buttons that allow you to put the entire page on one story. Hope that helps.

You can make your own: http://fanfictionloader.appspot.com/

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