Why I like this Harry Potter fan fiction novel

I never read the original Harry Potter novels, but I have been completely engrossed in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fan fiction novel by Eliezer Yudkowsky published on-line, chapter by chapter as it was written, from 2010 to 2015.

The premise is that Harry Potter’s foster-father was not the vile Vernon Dursley, as in the original novels, but Michael Verres-Evans, an intelligent and kindly Oxford biochemistry professor, who encouraged Harry to read science and science fiction.

Consequently young Harry is a committed rationalist, who regards the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft not as a refuge from an unkind Muggle world, but as a puzzle to be solved and a challenge to be overcome.

He also is a genius, with the intellect of a Richard Feynman and the ambition of a Napoleon Bonaparte, along with the emotional maturity of an 11-year-old boy.

His plan is to use the methods of science to unlock the secrets of magic, then to combine the powers of both to “optimize” the world on rational principles  As a character remarks, this is not far from wanting to become a Dark Lord.

Young Harry escapes the control of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and Professor Minerva McGonagall and allows himself to be mentored by the cynical Professor Quirinus Quirrell, while trying to wean fellow student Draco Malfoy from unthinking malice and Hermione Granger from unthinking goodness.

There are many adventures, in which young Harry seemingly triumphs by applying his intelligence and the rational method.  He becomes impatient with Hogwarts’ witches and wizards for failing to understand cognitive bias, Bayes’s Theorem, game theory, effective altruism and the other principles of rationality.

Then, in the end, he discovers that he has completely misunderstood his situation and brought himself, Hogwarts and Magical Britain to the brink of doom.  But he thinks his way out of his plight at the very last minute and saves the day, although not without cost.

All the characters have their say.  There aren’t any attacks on straw men.  Many episodes are very funny, although the story becomes darker as it goes on.

There is a chapter in which readers submitted proposed revisions of fantasy classics such as The Fellowship of the Ring or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on what the story would have been if the characters had acted rationally.

Eliezer Yudknowsky

The author, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, was a founder and, at the time of writing, a leader of the Less Wrong community, whose members discuss how to live and think more rationally and create a more rational society.  Yudkowsky reportedly has left Less Wrong, but he evidently is still a research fellow at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute in Berkeley, California.

He posted it one chapter at a time and invited comments on each chapter, which have been kept as part of the on-line published book.

I think you would like this book if you are the kind of person who likes role-playing games based on logic puzzles, or likes books such as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow or likes the kind of detective novel in which the author leaves clues so that the reader can solve the crime before the characters do.  Even if you’re none of these things, you might like the story.

I don’t know what adult hard-core Harry Potter fans would think of it.  Supposedly the only thing that is different from the J.K. Rowling books is the character of Harry Potter himself, but I haven’t read the originals and wouldn’t know.

As the saying goes, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you would like.  I think it is great!

If you do want to try it, click on one of the links below and read one of the 122 chapters each evening.  Yudkowsky didn’t really get into the swing of things until the fifth or sixth chapter, so if you’re interested at all, I recommend you try nine or ten chapters before giving up..


The Less Wrong web site.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

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