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Rational fiction (rationalfiction.io)
151 points by rayalez on July 31, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 83 comments



It's complicated. I like HPMOR, but... not necessarily because it's rational?

I mean, Eliezer is an impressive writer whose style resonates with many people. And it's indeed frustrating to see idiocy in fiction, like in Star Trek where the most powerful weapon is obviously the teleporter but no one acknowledges that. We can all agree on these things.

The problem is that removing idiocy doesn't automatically make a piece of fiction good. It seems like Eliezer has convinced a ton of nerds (I hate the word but let's roll with it) that they can succeed in writing fiction by applying this one weird trick. But you need much more than that.

Our enjoyment of stories comes mainly from emotions, which we then rationalize by saying "I liked that story because the hero was really smart". A few people have noticed that the actual plotlines in HPMOR are kinda weak, and it's really the characterization and "epic" style that makes the story work. A version of HPMOR that was just "smart", with better intrigue but less emotional appeal, wouldn't attract nearly as many people. A version of Worm without the raw moments of suffering would be kinda pointless to read. These things don't come for free if you just try to write rationally.

To conclude, here's a few recommendations:

- If you want to read a work that succeeds purely based on rationality, without much emotion or characterization, check out The Metropolitan Man. It's probably the best example of its kind, and a damn good read too.

- If you know your way around the Harry Potter universe and want another good fanfic in that setting, try The Seventh Horcrux. It doesn't give a fuck about rationality, but it's so amazing that you won't care.

- If you want something extremely smart, well written, and emotional at the same time, read anything by Ted Chiang. I'll never stop recommending him.


Ironically, most of the better bits, and indeed the overarching plot thread of HPMOR are largely down to the huge gaps in various characters' rational thought. If Harry had made the obvious "let's not trust the sinister guy that's obviously manipulative and definitely more experienced at it than me" leap right at the beginning it might have been a much shorter series.

Apart from young Harry picking up some of the flaws in the organization of Rowling's wizard world in the first couple of chapters in the first few chapters and the combat lesson scenes, there's really not that much rationality going on. Most of the rest of it is characters trying to achieve particular goals whilst being thwarted in large parts by emotional impulses and glaring oversights the reader is positively screaming for them to notice, which is pretty much Fiction 101.

Harry as a character in HPMOR works because he's implausibly precocious, ambitious and devious, which is quite cute in an 11 year old, not because he [sometimes] draws particularly well-reasoned conclusions. We do judge the series on whether we like him being really smart, but that's quite different from him being really rational.

If super-detached and accurate analysis of a situation is what turns you on then I think Arthur Conan Doyle nailed down the "rational fiction" genre with Sherlock Holmes over a century ago.


It's funny how Sherlock Holmes stories were considered very clever at first, then there was a backlash from authors like Agatha Christie who emphasized "realistic" psychology and disliked "magical" deductions from surface facts, and then it turned out that Conan Doyle's approach was right after all, because his stories predicted most of modern forensics. That's quite a high bar for future writers of rational fiction!


let's not trust...

A general failing of HPMOR and most 'rational' fiction is they suffer from the same plot railroading. Instead of starting with a world rules, characters, problem, and unbiased evaluation of what happens they generally try and fast talk their way into some predefined plot.

In the short term this can work, but for longer plots you still need to whack ever increasing numbers of people with the stupid stick or backtrack and edit in a few plot relevant items at the beginning ex: The Martian.


I agree with you. And I'm happy enough if the fiction I'm reading is `rational enough' in the sense that the author has plugged the obvious plot holes I can come up within 30 seconds of thinking about the story.

Just makes the suspension of disbelief that much stronger.

HPMoR's biggest flaw when seen as a piece of entertainment is that the author spends so much effort trying to convince you how smart he is. (In contrast eg Harry Potter and the Natural 20 just wants you to enjoy yourself.)


> It seems like Eliezer has convinced a ton of nerds (I hate the word but let's roll with it) that they can succeed in writing fiction by applying this one weird trick.

I think it's tapping into a rich market, that of people who believe they are much more rational (read: smart) than the broader herd. The conviction is already there.


I think you're responding to a strawman version of Eliezer's writing advice. He's never claimed that rational, goal oriented characters are sufficient to write good fiction. His "(first) Three Laws of Fanfiction," for example, list these rules:

You can't make Frodo a Jedi unless you give Sauron the Death Star.

Originality isn't easy, but it is simple: Just don't do stuff that's already been done.

The premise of a story is a conflict and its resolution.

With that said, a story is much more interesting if it contains characters that respond to their world in a manner reminiscent of actual people even if it would be more convenient to the author for them to act differently. Lawrence Watt-Evans is a good example of an author who writes such stories.

I think Ted Chiang is awesome too, but his stories tend to be too short to really get into character choice that much. They're more about serving as vehicles for interesting ideas.


It really isn't that complicated. Nobody is claiming that there is a paint-by-numbers approach to writing the Novel of the Century. Even if you had such a technique, people would still screw it up. Nothing, not even "emotions," automatically makes a piece of fiction good. Nothing comes for free, ever. Packing in the emotions is no more likely to make your writing good than packing in the rationality. The best you can do is inspire people to write and experiment, so that some good stuff is written along with some bad stuff, because that's just how it goes. Especially at the level of decent fanfic like HPMOR, it would be nice to see fewer instances of deus ex machina and naked wish-fulfillment fantasies.


> The problem is that removing idiocy doesn't automatically make a piece of fiction good.

Completely agree with your post, and especially this. I also second the Ted Chiang recommendation: as far as I can tell he's in a class of his own (and if there's anyone else out there like him, I'd love to know!). "Stories of Your Life and Others" is a good place to start and available on Kindle.

On the topic of rationality generally, I do find some author's have such a precise, rational voice that it's actually almost a relief to read them. I can think of a few non-fiction authors in particular, all somewhat controversial, but they also all speak with a refreshing clarity. It would be nice to see that more in fiction too.


I read the Metropolitan Man on this recommendation.

A very interesting take in many ways.

I do think that for the narrating characters, there was a certain sociopathic aspect.

Is there a place where people discuss these books after everyone's read them so you don't have to hide spoilers? I think the genre fits whatif-scenarios very well.

I think, books probably must have plot holes, one writer doesn't have the brain power to simulate the actions of so many people very well. Hence it's always a danger to introduce a supposedly supremely smart person...


There's a bunch of subreddits you can discuss these books on.

Books don't have to have plot holes, if you base them on actual events. (Though, actual people do act stupid and even worse in uninteresting ways.)


Our enjoyment of stories comes mainly from emotions

There are entertaining fics, and sometime I want to simply be entertained and feel the emotion. But I enjoy rational or just realistic writing as well and I look for that qualities in basically all of the stories I want to read.


I second the Ted Chiang recommendation. I've only read his novella "Understand", but it tackled Eliezer-esque themes in a non-Eliezer-esque way. Actually, you've inspired me to go look up his other stuff.


Understand is probably my least favorite of Chiang's stories, because it's still too close to superpower fantasy. His other works are more about exploring ideas and emotions. My favorite is Liking What You See (http://www.ibooksonline.com/88/Text/liking.html).


I wouldn't say Understand is my least favorite, by Liking What You See is definitely amazing.

"The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling" is another brilliant one.


> like in Star Trek where the most powerful weapon is obviously the teleporter but no one acknowledges that.

I'm not sure if that's universally the case in the Star Trek universe. At least in TNG, it seems to be recognized that teleporters (and similar technologies) can be used for military gain (such as covertly beaming away teams into hostile situations, beaming said away teams out of hostile situations, etc.), and the implication is that teleporter technology is not used very often as a direct weapon because of Starfleet's desire to explore rather than conquer.


Which "The Seventh Horcrux" did you mean? I noticed at least two with a quick google search.



I read this one for a while, and did not like it. It's hardly funny or thrilling, the only good thing is the sentence which compelled me to read me, which is: "I was sitting with all those Slytherins complaining about Muggles taking our jobs"


Yep!


Someone has stumbled over strict plot-driven hard SF in the classical mold and decided it's something new.

Not to belittle Eliezer (who I think did something new and interesting) but you can find a large chunk of these elements out there in SF if you look in the right places.

(Note, however, that a large proportion, probably a majority, of what is marketed as Science Fiction is basically swords and sorcery adventure yarns with spaceships instead of dragons or galleons, aliens in place of orcs, and technology porn with added technobabble in place of magic. Personally I blame the fictive family tree of which Star Wars is the most successful branch ...)


Could you list some good examples? I was wondering about Niven, Egan and others and realising that I tend to enjoy my fiction without consciously analysing it.

(Just realised who I'm replying to... maybe you could blog about it)


Niven and Egan would be classic examples from different decades (Niven's post-1977 work, and his collaborations, not so much). I'd also point to Hannu Rajaniemi's Quantum Thief trilogy, Peter Watts (for world-building -- see below) and the cultural/linguistic side of C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series (at least the first five or so books).

One of the less well understood (especially by non-genre reader) aspects of hard SF is that the world the story is set in can be viewed as a character/participant in the plot, or -- in this sub-field -- as a puzzle that the plot depends on; the outcome of the story simply doesn't work without the world being set up the way it is. (A lot of stuff is marketed as hard SF that doesn't fit this criterion; it just has lots of cheap throwaway references to technology. But the core of the field is about solving the puzzle that the universe has thrown in front of the protagonists.)


There's also Charles Stross, a personal favorite. Can't imagine why you would have forgotten to mention him... ;)


Indeed. Also note that there is fantasy that fits these constraints as well, with rigorously-defined magic systems that the characters must manipulate and explore the implications of. Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series is one example.


That's kinda what I thought. Actually, the first thing that came to mind is, science fiction that isn't fun anymore.


Currently reading Dune (I'm at 50%): I work a lot with Bayensian models and I keep seeing the way Paul Atreides can "feel" the future as a perfect implementation of Bayesian thinking. He weights every minute detail in a intuitive way and computes most likely outcomes. Also, the religious parts are very nicely worked out as planted by Bene Gesserit with a very detailed, worked-out plan. I love it. Having such consistent, logic based aspects to fiction makes it feel much more like you can be the hero yourself. It teaches you something real from a story that is fake. I love books that change me rather than just entertain me. It's true philosofy.

Some of my favorites and their lessons:

Enders game -> Understanding an "enemy" makes you see their beauty, makes you not want to be enemies (dehumanizing the enemy is extremely important in warfare and in propaganda; we boycot evil Putin, we don't think of honest Russian people who "love their children too", trying to make the best out of life.).

Atlas Shrugged -> The importance of not ignoring your own wishes in a group context, the morality of rational self-interest.

Brave New World -> You can either spend time creating or you can spend it consuming.

1984 -> All the metaphors it provides just makes any discussion regarding government over-reach so much more efficient.

Little Brother -> Why privacy is more important than security: Your rulers can be wrong with catastrophic consequences.


I think when a story is well told, it's easy to overlook how implausible it actually is. Paul Atreides as a rationalist hero? He's the outcome of a breeding program for people who can see the future and the rightful heir to a whole planet and a prophesied messiah of a huge religion and a supersoldier with insane fighting skills. All of that is set up before the events of the novel even begin. And then he, um, takes psychedelic drugs and magically learns what's going on in outer space. And marries a princess.

The real question is what you'd do in a universe where someone else has all these gifts, but it's not you. Like how in LOTR Aragorn has all the gifts (rightful heir, supersoldier, engaged to an immortal princess) but Sam is the real hero. I half wish Eliezer had used that approach in HPMOR instead of going with Harry as the obvious choice.


There's a Naruto fanfic where the main character is actually Sakura. As expected, she's the weakest of the bunch. https://www.fanfiction.net/s/5193644/1/Time-Braid

In the game Oblivion (Elder Scrolls IV), the player character is so much not the hero that he can't even wear the amulets of kings that is given to him at the very beginning of the game. The end of the main plot actually have you watch the messiah save the world. Unusual, but refreshing. (Then Skyrim went back to having the player being the messiah.)


I was enamored with Skyrim, but the more of the plot lines I went through, the more ridiculous the story seemed. So I'm the best warrior Companion, the best Mage in Winterhold, the key to the civil war and the dragon born? The first plot line I went through - Companions - worked fine, because it was the first. But each successive one fell flat at least a little, because how I was the best at everything.

What I enjoyed was the world they built. The plot was secondary.


To be fair, in Oblivion, you can still become the best thief, mage, fighter, gladiator, and assassin in the entire province, all at the same time. With the DLC, you can also become a holy knight and a copy of a daedric prince. Never mind the downloadable mods.

I thought the point of that particular plot element--and making the player a prisoner of some sort at the beginning of Elder Scrolls games--was to avoid coercing the player into adhering to the preconceptions attached to particular roles. The game tells you, right from the start, that you're a blank slate, so do what you want.

If you do all the quests, of course it's going to start being a bit ridiculous. But the game is also supposed to be fun for someone who wants to just play one particular role, without sinking 400 hours into the game while trying to do everything.


I was aiming more towards the hyper-awareness aspect. The visualization of probabilities, the details that affect those probabilities, the fact that sometimes he is in the dark, a shadowy valley in which the horizons after which things are unknown are very close by (in the near future). I love that way of looking at it, it is an eye opener for me at this moment in time.

I also don't like it that he dreamed he was going to be called Muad'Dib but I'm happy to ignore such small slips of the scientific pen and extract the value around it.

By the way your post should have a spoiler alert ;) (Perhaps mine should as well)


> Brave New World -> You can either spend time creating or you can spend it consuming.

Interesting conclusion. In my interpretation, the lesson is more open ended: "You can be happy if you've found your niche but what if your ambitions don't match your abilities?"

Most of the people in the society of Brave New World are fabricated to fit in and are happy and even for those few that don't fit in, the Controllers send them to small communities were they can be.

Helmholtz is likely to be happy on his island and Mond himself is somewhat envious that Bernard will "meet the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world".

Bernard himself OTOH doesn't quite share this view. For good reasons as we know he feels superior to most people but actually isn't. And on the island it will be even more glaring.


The world in BNW does not like (innovative) creation, it is aimed at stability. You should do your job and enjoy mindlessly afterwards, either doing games or using somma. I.e.: "Ending is better than mending.", "...they're so conditioned that they practically can't help behaving as they ought to behave" -> Nowadays we have commercials to do that, the conditioning. Al least that is how I see it, many things we have nowadays can be extrapolated quite nicely into BNW. We do it to ourselves, by catering to our primal, short-term rewards systems we get less time to "create", instead we watch sitcoms. (I'm overreacting I bit, I know it's not so black and white.)


I agree that BNW's society is trying hard to be stable, like suppressing inventions that would give the lower castes to much free time.

Our world has still problems that need to be solved and we are far from achieving a stable state. But in BNW, humanity has done that and now they (meaning most of humanity) want to keep that as they are happy with the status quo.

In our world, just "consuming" instead of "creating" might be frowned upon but in BNW, is there really a need to create? Those who want, are allowed to, outside of the main society.

It's not the kind of future society I would want to live in (no space travel, booo!) but if I'd have to choose a dystopia, BNW would probably be it.


This is honestly really cool and I was thinking only weeks ago how I wished there was a resource like this. I am not often a fiction reader because I find the characters frustratingly stupid or the situations unrealistically easy in pretty much every fantasy book. Wheel of Time is full of characters making decisions so rash and stupid that it's hard to imagine someone in real life ever doing it. The main character is thrusted into greatness and power without any effort and continues to do great things with little effort. This is a common trait in most fantasy books.

When I read fantasy, I want something inventive and clever in a setting I find interesting. HPMOR had a fair share of silly parts and the author seems a bit full of himself, but it was overwhelmingly the most intelligent fantasy writing I've ever read (an admittedly small sample size). It's sad that my favorite piece of fiction writing was a Harry Potter fanfiction.


Based on what you are saying, I would recommend reading some Japanese manga. Manga follows a different story structure from western fiction. In western fiction you usually start the story with conflict. The main characters resolve the conflict and the story is over. Manga follows the Chinese epic structure where you start off with a section that simply defines the rules of the universe and introduces you to the characters. Often it is quite light and humourous. About halfway through the crisis develops. Quite often this is rather hard on the reader because something incredibly nasty happens to their now beloved characters. The rest of the story talks about how the characters resolve the conflict.

The main advantage of this story structure is that by setting up the rules at the beginning and spending a great deal of time introducing the characters, you have the opportunity to examine the actions of the characters in the conflict section knowing their constraints. That way the actions and reasoning are much easier to follow and to relate to.

I'd like to give you advice on what to read, but I tend to enjoy fairly childish, light stuff ;-) Although not fantasy, Barefoot Gen is pretty amazing (should be on everybody's reading list IMHO). I don't personally like it, but Akira is also quite good.


Interesting, but not entirely true. The classic western "hero journey" also starts with a brief explanation of the world and its rules. Otherwise, it would be impossible to grasp the conflict at all.


Care to give some recommendations for a newcomer to that genre?


It's hard to give recommendations because the stuff I read is probably not what most people would like ;-) Especially, I tend to like sports manga which is pretty far from fantasy. (Currently Yowamushi Pedal is fuelling my cycling addiction!)

I mentioned Barefoot Gen, which is a very early manga and a classic that is actually taught in Japanese schools. It's not fantasy, though. It tells the story of the author's experiences around the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

For fantasy things, Full metal alchemist is an alternate-earth scenario with magic. It is extremely good. One thing that doesn't actually fit the epic story format because it is a series of short stories is Mushishi. I highly recommend it, although I've only watched the anime. Akira is a cyber-punk, distopian future manga which is very highly acclaimed. Personally, it is not my taste, but it is excellent. Another interesting manga which has no actual heroes is Death Note. It's another one I don't like because all of the characters are really nasty, but some people really, really like it for that reason. I asked my wife (who is Japanese) for a suggestion and she mentioned Ginga Eiyuu Densetsu (Legend of the Galactic Heroes). I haven't read it but Wikipedia indicates it was originally a series of novels. It seems Viz publishes both the novels and manga in English. Ghost in the Shell is a very good sci-fi manga, but I have to admit that it is years since I looked at it, so I can't really remember it.

One manga which I love is actually a baseball manga called Touch. If you read that, you will see the manga story structure very easily.

I started reading manga as a means to learn Japanese. At the time I had only a passing interest in graphic novels and comics. Over time I got quite hooked on it. But I only read in Japanese, so I tend to read things which are quite easy. There are very complex manga stories which are aimed at adults, but unfortunately I haven't spent much time looking at those things.

Of course the 2 current most popular mangas aimed at young boys is Naruto and One Piece. Naruto just finished. It has some very powerful moments and the story is quite good. I've found that there are quite a lot of useful ideas that you can take away from the story and apply to your own life. However, the characters are one-dimensional (on purpose, I think) so I suspect it wouldn't appeal to the original poster. One Piece is also quite good (the first chapter is actually really worth reading on it's own and can stand by itself even if you don't read anything else). Again, it is aimed at a young audience and the characters are very static. There are some extremely moving moments, though.

Hope that helps a bit. As I said, it's hard to give recommendations because some people will look at that list and probably absolutely hate some of the things on there. There is an unbelievably massive amount of manga being written and I truly believe there is something for every taste. However, the examples above are pretty easy to find in English and are all quite famous. If they don't meet your taste, I hope you'll explore a bit further on your own.


> When I read fantasy, I want something inventive and clever in a setting I find interesting. HPMOR had a fair share of silly parts and the author seems a bit full of himself, but it was overwhelmingly the most intelligent fantasy writing I've ever read

I really enjoyed it too. While not everything was perfect, it's better than a lot of stuff I've paid for.

I remember really enjoying some of the early points where there are jabs at what characters do in fiction generally. Very nice reading something and not thinking "Aaargh, you idiot! No, don't split up! NO GO AND CALL SOMEONE WHO DEALS WITH THIS STUFF!" and "What? Don't destroy the... no, NO GO AND SPEAK TO A PROPER ARCHAEOLOGIST".


> It's sad that my favorite piece of fiction writing was a Harry Potter fanfiction.

That shouldn't be sad. The quality of fanfiction varies as much as the quality of content across the Internet in general: it ranges from horrendous to incredible. The existence of the horrendous doesn't in any way negate the incredible. Some of the best stories I've read (in any medium) are fanfiction, including HPMoR.


"The main character is thrusted into greatness and power without any effort and continues to do great things with little effort."

This perfectly describes my reaction to Ender's Game, except Ender is also smug and arrogant about it as well. Nobody grows or overcomes anything in the entire book.

That and everyone believing Card invented manoeuvre warfare annoys me.


The site is basically a collected crosspost of everything from /r/rational.

Don't ask why I know that.


...because you've made at least one poor decision in life? :P


Once the sub got nontrivially popular I realized I couldn't hope to keep up with everything.


From TFA: "Characters act as real humans would." and "Story's plot and characters aren't propelled forward by a lack of communication or by idiocy."

Good thing, because "real people" never do things because they're misinformed, impulsive, etc...


That was my first reaction too (and it was quite disappointing to see it reflected in another post so far below). From an educational POV, having an all-out rational play is valuable (up to a point), but that's it. It is like observing chemical reactions in a sterile medium, not in a natural one.


You can say a lot of things about HPMOR, but none of them are "Characters act as real humans would".


With the exception of "teaching rationality" as an explicit goal, the "Characteristics of rational fiction" are just basic guidelines for writing good fiction (science fiction, if you include the "topics" characteristic).

When an author break's their world's own rules or has a character make an obviously irrational choice to drive the plot, it is annoys the reader and is considered poor writing. This is true of all writing, regardless of whether the author considers it rational or not. Good sci fi and fantasy often involves the characters deconstructing their world's rules and using those character's unique insight into the world to somehow solve the plot. Brandon Sanderson -- who writes epic fantasy that would never be considered "rational fiction" -- is famously good at this.

That being said, I have grown tired of rehashed old tropes and am glad that a new spin these is emerging. Hopefully some fresh work will come from it.


> basic guidelines for writing good fiction

I think what 'good fiction' is varies from person to person. Those for whom realistic motivations etc are important will like books that other fans of 'rational' fiction like; but there's tons of hugely popular books that have none of this.

Assuming that people making bad choices for plot reasons bothers everyone is just typical mind fallacy; clearly it doesn't, otherwise many of the most popular books wouldn't sell.


Well, the popularity of a book is not directly correlated with the quality of it's writing. There are some truly awful bestsellers out there, along with many more undiscovered gems.

Most professional authors, writing instructors and critics would probably agree that these characteristics are just generally solid guidelines for good fiction writing (I speak from experience as a long-time hobbyist fiction writer).


A shrewd thing to do is read HPMOR's author notes and take reading recommendations from there: http://hpmor.com/notes/

A few that really stand out:

The Ethshar books - to parapharse EY, the author creates the world and the characters, then he throws them together and watches what happens.

Vorkosigan Saga - if EY's Harry has an inspiration, it's Miles Vorkosigan.


Seconding that recommendation for the Ethshar series. The setting was originally designed for a tabletop RPG, and the characters often act like rule-exploiting "munchkin" gamers. Eliezer Yudkowsky's recommendation is here: http://lesswrong.com/lw/s7/lawrence_wattevanss_fiction/


I always though that both good mystery and science fiction fit most of those criteria listed. Except deconstruction, which I can happily live without.

Of course, neither SF not mysteries are actually like the stories this page links to.


Deconstruction doesn't have to hit you on the head. Eg Watchmen is an enjoyable story, but also a deconstruction of its genre.

The weirdest form of deconstruction is `unconstruction' (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/UnbuiltTrope?from...): "An unbuilt trope is a work that seems like a deconstruction but is actually the Trope Maker itself."


> Characters act as real humans would.

That by definition rules out any semblance of reality in so-called rationalist fiction.

Real humans only act rationally some of the time. They're especially incapable of acting rationally when under extreme stress, such as when a mythical creature is trying to kill them.

People often do things for no particular reason. Some people are in fact evil just for the sake of it. Lack of clear communication is actually a big problem in the real world, just not in a way that is commonly portrayed in sitcoms.

Not every bad guy has a complex machiavellian scheme going, and it usually doesn't take an equally complex theme to bring them down. A lot of the time, it's just a matter of who has bigger guns. Often, the villain really has lousy op-sec, as the Silk Road guy did.

If you like reading stories with carefully designed worlds, hyper-analytic heroes, and clever puzzles, that's fine. But none of the features that distinguish rationalist literature from other kinds make them better works of literature, only better didactic tools for some purposes. Hammers are good tools for hitting nails, but that doesn't mean hammers are superior to other tools in any other respect.

My favorite parts of HPMOR are the war games, especially the big battle that takes place in the woods where every team comes up with creative strategies. None of the strategies work perfectly as intended, and there's a lot of improvising as well. That scene was so fun, and I could totally see it happening, precisely because of the healthy and realistic mixture of rationality, spontaneity, stupidity, and plain luck. Sadly, I can't say the same for the last few chapters of HPMOR. It contains too much complex scheming for the sake of scheming. That's just as pointless as being evil for the sake of evil.

My favorite novelist is Ursula Le Guin. Her works are set in lovingly designed, beautiful, and compelling worlds; but her characters display just enough inconsistency, thoughtlessness, and impulsiveness to make their plights relevant to ordinary humans. She manages to build tension and leave the reader longing for more without resorting to cheap puzzles or turning the heroes into masters of manipulation. And she does it without the pretense of teaching anybody anything. Haven't we long outgrown the age when every bedtime story had to have a clear moral lesson?

So let's take rationalist fiction for what they are: didactic tools. They're neither more realistic nor have any more literary merit than other types of fiction.


"Some people are in fact evil just for the sake of it."

It's interesting that many of us do not (either because can not or do not want to) realize it as a fact. Such "plain evil" people are usually just labeled as people with mental disorders, with such or such "syndrome" when the causes can not be clearly identified. These people are noticed and taken care of when their "illness" is severe, rendering them dangerous and foolish, but it's reasonable to expect that a lot of people with some moderate forms of such (so-called) affections to stay free and "ready for action" all their life. These kind of people do exist in real life and are part of daily play. Abstracting them away appears in itself like an irrational thing.


Not every bad guy has a complex machiavellian scheme going, and it usually doesn't take an equally complex theme to bring them down. A lot of the time, it's just a matter of who has bigger guns. Often, the villain really has lousy op-sec, as the Silk Road guy did.

A complex scheme seems to be more prone to failure.


Sounds great. I always wanted a genre like this and didn't know it existed past the rational titles I've read. Got some more reading ahead of me. Thanks rayalez!


I can't find links atm but much of what this refers to is just creating a hard magic system and sticking to it. Brandon Sanderson wrote a couple of very good essays on this topics doing with Sanderson's rule of magic which day much the same thing.


Insofar as "rational fiction" is rational, it's just good fiction[0].

If we tack on the requirements that it "teach rationality" and "deconstruct" some setting, then maybe you might justify it as a separate genre, but in all of the works that I've read (and I've read the entirety of HPMOR, as well as a few others on that list), they seem to miss why characters might behave in an apparently irrational fashion.

See, there's a convention in fiction where sometimes the author can't describe the precise evolution of their fictional universe in a step-by-step manner, and so they just skip to the next incident in the plot, or maybe paper over how some feat was accomplished with a weak explanation. As long as it doesn't interfere with the point of the story, it's just something you, as the reader, are supposed to accept. For example, to provide a scientifically plausible explanation of the biomechanics of Prometheus' regenerating liver[1] would detract from the thrust of the myth, and might also have been difficult to do given the state of medical knowledge in Ancient Greece.

Deconstructing things is fine (and usually shows up to some degree in all fanfics, not just self-consciously rational ones). It's a fun intellectual game to wonder just how exploitable various magic systems are, but perhaps the story that Rowling wanted to tell hinged less on precisely how magic worked than on the timeless tale of plucky schoolchildren successfully killing their teacher in a secret dungeon. Ah, youth.

But the problem with HPMOR and related works is that, when you start trying to enforce optimal decision making at every single point in the story, you tend to end up ruining the story either through reducing it to absurdity (c.f. the conclusion of the book, which involves multiple simultaneous decapitations using transfigured nanowire), or doing so much worldbuilding that the plot starts to collapse under its own weight.

HPMOR barely hangs together thanks to the efforts of Rowling, who managed to paint a sufficiently vivid universe that Yudkowsky could write ~137,000 words in order to tweak the magic system and also do a pastiche of the mock battles in Ender's Game.

And as far as teaching rationality goes, I'm skeptical. It wasn't that Harry was transcendentally rational, just that almost every other character was exceedingly dull. The places where he demonstrates his supposedly amazing thought process tended to be when blackmailing people who could easily retaliate, a couple of basic experiments, or jargon-dense recapitulations of obvious ideas[2].

Not to mention that the dubious rationality of a plan for creating safe AI whose first step involves writing a fanfiction for a children's fantasy series. I've seen Yudkowsky justify it in various ways, but it seems to me that he just likes to write and tried to make his personal project more relevant to his broader goals.

I know, I know, that's probably excessively snarky. But still, it is exceedingly frustrating to see people advocating for more "rational" fiction without understanding how fiction works. I haven't read everything listed on the site, but for my own part, "rational" fiction is far from a silver bullet; in most cases it's just a necessary (but not sufficient) criteria that good fiction has to fulfill.

---

0. "Actions should be logical and follow naturally from actions that precede them." via, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poetics_(Aristotle)

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prometheus#Hesiod_and_the_Theo...

2. ... about half of which were wrong or incomplete. Charitably, you might say this reflects Harry's precocious but not-fully-developed mind, or if you were less positively inclined you might say that teaching people incorrect things is the opposite of promoting rationality


Is anyone selling hard copies of 'Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality'?


No, at least not legally. Harry Potter's author is not happy with people selling fan fiction.


This kinda seems like a recipe for boringly perfect, flaw-free characters.


I don't think this is even slightly true of the protagonists of the two most popular examples of the genre (Worm and HPMoR).


Glad to hear it, but the article writer hasn't conveyed it well. It really sounds like he's describing fiction about the clash of hyperrational superminds who aren't held back by petty things like "mistakes" or "emotions."

Also--the article mainly uses the term "rationalist fiction," which is fine, but the title is "rational fiction," which is rather a turn-off. It reminds me of L. Ron Hubbard rattling on about how he doesn't write fantasy because fantasy is for stupids who can't write good, and he is a smart because he writes science fiction which is for smarts.

The whole tone of the article is kind of self-congratulatory. If that doesn't reflect the actual stories, well, good.


Characters in rationalist fiction don't need to be without flaws. They need to be without the obvious, cliched flaws that make most fiction work.

And in particular, this needs to be true of both the villains and the heroes, or you would indeed end up with something boring. The villains should have read the Evil Overlord List, and not make any of the obvious mistakes on it.

Also see http://yudkowsky.tumblr.com/writing for a detailed guide specifically about writing characters in rationalist fiction.


Game of throne's characters are very rational. The magic system (or lack of a system) makes it not quite fulfill the rational fiction definition.


Many of the men in GoT who are closely involved in the power struggle are indeed quite rational. They have to be, since the less rational tend not to survive for long in that story.

I can't say the same for the women, though. Most of the major female characters in GoT have a streak of crazy in them. Dany, Cersei, Lysa, Lady Stoneheart... The Tyrells seem to be the only exception.


Tywin sends armies to torture villages looking for the brotherhood and burns crops despite knowing this is the last harvest before winter and food stocks are low. Most of the leaders in the war of five kings do the same thing - and get themselves killed to boot.

We only see Lady Stoneheart kill perhaps half a dozen senior enemy commanders.

I know who I think is being irrational...


Tywin burns crops because he wants the riverlands to starve. He is willing to destroy a large swath of the country in order to stay in power. It's a perfectly rational means to a despicable goal.


I haven't read Game of Thrones so I'm probably missing some essential context.

But in what universe is "destroying the country" a rational means and "stay in power" a despicable goal?


I tend to find these stories (such as the much-lauded HPMOR) annoying and honestly kind of tiresome.

Some of the examples from this very page:

Rationalist stories make a deliberate effort to reward reader's thinking, and teach him to get better at it.

Because presumably women are incapable of rational thought, amirite?

Characters are gaming the system, they understand and exploit the rules of the world, they cheat and manipulate it into the desired outcome. Hero's brain is his main "superpower" and his primary advantage over others.

The story is built around beep-boop sociopaths, and naturally this is lauded--not hard work, not soft skills, not being friendly, but calling out people on their bullshit and tricking them into getting what the character wants.

They use: - Rationality and logic - Intelligence and cunning - Knowledge of science and technology - Creativity and inventiveness - Psychological manipulation and Social Engineering - Complex Machiavellian plots

So, in the future, it'll be even more awesome to be a scumbag rich kid who has read The Prince a few times. Swell.

Characters act as real humans would. No one is just evil for the hell of it, conflicts are driven by differences in values, and the villains(to the extent there even are villains) have a real and honest point to their actions.

Story's plot and characters aren't propelled forward by a lack of communication or by idiocy.

Nobody important is stupid. None of the main heroes or main villains hold the IdiotBall.

The thing that's missing here? Most real humans are irrational, they are petty, they do things for the lulz. Conflicts often arise despite having the same values. Cruel and dickish people are often cruel and dickish out of spite or laziness.

~

The thing I dislike about so much of this rationalist stuff is that, honestly, it breaks apart like so much driftwood when confronted with the jagged incongruities of how real people work.

Intelligence is resented, systems are illogical kludges, people are unpredictable...this sort of thing is just popcorn reading for folks that are more comfortable reading pandering fiction than facing the harsh and chaotic and unforgiving world outside their computer.


>> Rationalist stories make a deliberate effort to reward reader's thinking, and teach him to get better at it.

> Because presumably women are incapable of rational thought, amirite?

Do you honestly believe this is what that sentence means? Honestly?


I believe the author of the piece uses "default = male" and has not occured to them that there is a more rational and inclusive language to use.


> The thing I dislike about so much of this rationalist stuff is that, honestly, it breaks apart like so much driftwood when confronted with the jagged incongruities of how real people work.

> Intelligence is resented, systems are illogical kludges, people are unpredictable...this sort of thing is just popcorn reading for folks that are more comfortable reading pandering fiction than facing the harsh and chaotic and unforgiving world outside their computer.

"Rational" does not in any way mean "only capable of dealing with rational systems and rational people". Intentionally choosing to not develop and use models for such systems would be decidedly irrational.

Social conventions, fashion, rhetoric, mob mentality, cognitive biases, and many other aspects of human behavior don't match how a rational actor would behave; that doesn't prevent someone from modeling them and behaving in ways that produce better results than if they hadn't.

For example, there are many otherwise smart people, or people who want to consider themselves smart, who decide at some point in their lives that fashion is fundamentally not sensible, and therefore they want nothing to do with it. Thus, they ignore the social signals associated with it, to their own detriment; they make poorer first impressions, and generally do not look how they wish to be perceived. This is not intelligent behavior.


Mostly agreed.

Fundamentally a perfectly rational world is unrealistic. Humans do behave irrationally, even insanely. Humans also behave sub-optimally because they are trapped in systems full of crazy perverse incentives. The world itself is full of paradoxes and chaotic feedback loops; the best intentions rationally and logically executed can and do lead to perverse outcomes that would not and maybe even could not be forseen.

Sometimes a rational investigation terminates with a big WTF. People see UFOS or Bigfoot all the time, and they're not all nuts. What are they seeing? Not enough information. The universe doesn't present you with all the evidence so you can tie a neat bow around it. It presents you with a dirty noisy incomplete data set so you can ponder it forever. (See also: bounded rationality. Bayesianism deals with this problem by defining truth as a float instead of a boolean, which I kind of like. Bigfoot might 0.0137384 exist.)

The universe gives us Fermi paradoxes and dark energy and Godel's incompleteness theorem.

That being said, I do like the aversion to the idiot plot. It's a big pet peeve of mine. I also like stories where all the characters have depth. To me that's just good characterization, something often lacking in genre fiction. Even if the villain (or the hero) is mad or irrational, there is some depth to it and they have their reasons however twisted these might be. But a lot of that is just good writing.

I also like the aversion to the deus ex machina, which is also lazy writing. If there is some kind of super-thing that intervenes, it should too be developed as a character with depth.


Rational fiction does not depend on the entire world being rational, only the main characters. Choosing to make the main characters unusually rational is no worse a sin than making them the "prophesied heroes of destiny," or any of the other special abilities usually given to protagonists. The rest of the world is free to be crazy—many plot points in Methods of Rationality, for example, develop as a result of thinking critically about the canon irrational magical world. (Magic itself isn't irrational, but the lack of characters exploiting overpowered artifacts like Time Turners and the Philosopher's Stone is.)


Fundamentally a perfectly rational world is unrealistic. Humans do behave irrationally, even insanely. Humans also behave sub-optimally because they are trapped in systems full of crazy perverse incentives. The world itself is full of paradoxes and chaotic feedback loops; the best intentions rationally and logically executed can and do lead to perverse outcomes that would not and maybe even could not be forseen.

A perfectly rational world is supposed to be realistic. It is supposed to be like reality.

Even in our reality, people or the things they do don't always make sense, but you can find out the reasons why if you just dig deep enough.


So, that's kind of an interesting point, right?

If a character behaves rationally, like beep-boop minmax profits and losses and proceed from there, then it really doesn't matter whether they have depth or not, because it won't really impact the story.

The entire point of a character with depth, like say Harold Lauder in The Stand, is that that depth gives a reader insight into why they do what they do during the story. It provides tension between what is obviously the correct/logical thing to do, and then trying to predict what the character will actually do and why.

If characters are purely rational computational entities, it doesn't really matter what their backstory is, what their motives are, or anything else. The story rapidly devolves into a mere exercise in the reader checking the author's math.


The entire point of a character with depth, like say Harold Lauder in The Stand, is that that depth gives a reader insight into why they do what they do during the story. It provides tension between what is obviously the correct/logical thing to do, and then trying to predict what the character will actually do and why.

First question: did you read through all of HPMOR?

beep-boop, sociopath, scumbag rich kid, etc.

Second question: why do you call out the author of the article for using "him" instead of "her/them/xer/it/whatever", then proceed to use incredibly demeaning terms and guilty-by-association smears against another oppressed subgroup, the true nerds? Your comments have been drenched with slimy, wet, arrogant hypocrisy.

----

The thing I dislike about so much of this rationalist stuff is that, honestly, it breaks apart like so much driftwood when confronted with the jagged incongruities of how real people work.

Maybe you are using too narrow a definition of "rational". It's easy to break something apart like so much driftwood when you're attacking a strawman.


the death of art




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