Harry Potter And The Methods Of Rationality
I loathe the Harry Potter books – or at least I loathed the first four, eight years ago, when a friend sent me .txt files of the first four books. I read through them in one day, and found them unimaginative, morally repugnant, barely literate, patronising crap. I haven’t looked at them since, so it may be that my judgement of them as someone in my early twenties was very different from what my judgement would be now, in my early thirties. But I doubt it.
I have very ambivalent feelings about Eliezer Yudkowsky, the founder of the LessWrong group blog. He seems the brightest of the various Singularity advocates, but that makes it all the more annoying when at times he falls into what look like incredibly basic faults in his reasoning. I also find the way he collects zealous followers more than a little worrying – the computer scientist Ben Goertzel has recently reported getting death threats from people who believe (following Yudkowsky’s rhetoric) that Goertzel’s investigations into AI have the potential to destroy the universe. (Note that Yudkowsky has emphatically not made such threatts – he is apparently friendly with Goertzel, in fact – but that his inflammatory rhetoric has the effect of encouraging that kind of behaviour even if it’s not his *intended* effect).
While I’ve committed fanfic in the past, and recognise that it can be a valid art-form in the right hands, I think that it rarely *is* in the right hands – Sturgeon’s Law probably needs to be adapted for fanfic so that it reads “99% of everything is crap – and 99% of the 1% that’s left isn’t up to much either”.
So why am I up to my third reading of a(n as yet incomplete) Harry Potter fanfic novel by Eliezer Yudkowsky, which already weighs in at longer than most completed novels?
Put simply, it’s one of the funniest, cleverest things I’ve read in a long, long time. While Yudkowsky originally intended this as primarily a didactic tool, it’s a rather brilliant satirical novel as well. The basic idea is that Harry Potter’s mother’s sister, instead of marrying an abusive slob, married a professor of biochemistry at Oxford University, so when he gets adopted after his biological parents, Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres is brought up in a very loving family, surrounded by books on science and SF novels, and becomes a child prodigy in science before ever learning about magic. As a result, he sets about actually *analysing* how magic works, applying the scientific method to figuring out what’s *really* going on.
The results of someone able to actually *think* walking through this world that has no real logic to it and pulling at the loose ends lead to some remarkably funny moments, like when Harry makes the Sorting Hat become unexpectedly sapient by wondering about it, or his total destruction of the rules of Quidditch, but what makes the book work is the fact that it gets this humour from *actually taking the world in which it’s set, and its consequences, seriously* – and as a result it really does feel like the stakes in the story are high.
What helps as well is that the characterisation is so spot on. By this I don’t mean that the characters fit Rowling’s originals – they seem more-or-less as I remember them, other than Potter, but I’ve not read the books in nearly a decade. Rather they seem like real people. The most rounded characters are the child prodigies, Harry and Hermione, and I found some parts of the book almost painful to read having been a child prodigy myself, as Yudkowsky appears also to have been:
Aside from helping people with their homework, or anything else they needed, she really didn’t know how to meet people. She didn’t feel like she was a shy person. She thought of herself as a take-charge sort of girl. And yet, somehow, if there wasn’t some request along the lines of “I can’t remember how to do long division” then it was just too awkward to go up to someone and say… what? She’d never been able to figure out what. And there didn’t seem to be a standard information sheet, which was ridiculous. The whole business of meeting people had never seemed sensible to her. Why did she have to take all the responsibility herself when there were two people involved? Why didn’t adults ever help? She wished some other girl would just walk up to her and say, “Hermione, the teacher told me to be friends with you.”
But let it be quite clear that Hermione Granger, sitting alone on the first day of school in one of the few cabins that had been empty, in the last car of the train, with the cabin door left open just in case anyone for any reason wanted to talk to her, was not sad, lonely, gloomy, depressed, despairing, or obsessing about her problems. She was, rather, rereading Hogwarts: A History for the third time and quite enjoying it, with only a faint tinge of annoyance in the back of her mind at the general unreasonableness of the world.
There are a couple of minor flaws with the book, both tiny moments when Potter’s characterisation feels off, and it seems like Yudkowsky is putting his own thoughts in – a point where Potter attributes the success of a Jewish character to his being Jewish (Yudkowsky seems to believe intelligence to be more down to hereditable than environmental factors, and is himself ethnically Jewish), and a point where Potter dismissively writes off the minor character Ron Weasley, which almost made me stop reading – at that point the author appears to have fallen foul of the all-too-common current tendency to conflate intelligence and cruelty. Thankfully, this is the *only* point where this happens, and in general both book and protagonist show a far more enlightened moral attitude than the frankly medieval morality of the original books.
Which is not to say that this Harry Potter is a paragon – far from it. He’s a very, *very* well-drawn nuanced character, with elements clearly taken from real life (his 26-hour sleep cycle sounds very, *VERY* familiar to me, and I suspect it’s something Yudkowsky has also suffered from) but without being an author-insert character. He’s fundamentally decent and thoughtful, but a decent and thoughtful eleven-year-old with few social skills.
The other major problem in the book is more forgivable, and is just that quite a few Americanisms show up – not just in language, but in assuming that British society is like USian society in ways that it isn’t (little things like having pancakes for breakfast, as an obvious example). Those won’t affect American readers at all, and will only affect those British readers who, like me, find it more implausible that British people would naturally take the word ‘pie’ to mean a sweet rather than a savoury dish than that it’s possible to defeat soul-sucking monsters with chocolate.
The science in the book is more-or-less correct, and if you don’t already know the basics of Bayesian statistics, game theory, the scientific method and various other elements of what might be called “the study of how we know what we know”, you’ll come away with a very decent gut-level understanding of the basic concepts. But you should read it because it combines that with imagination, a decent moral sense, a rare level of intelligence and some genuine writing ability.
I think, to be honest, Yudkowsky has missed his calling. His propagandising for the SIAI seems to be putting off many people who should sympathise with his ideas (such as, but not limited to, myself), while attracting a few who shouldn’t (the death threat people mentioned above). Were he to become a full-time Science Fiction or Fantasy writer he would probably have much more success both in putting his ideas across and in not putting off his natural allies. Either way, though, if you can bear to lower your status enough to read a 700+page Harry Potter fanfic, this is the one you should read…