Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is the only fanfiction I’ve yet read. I have enough trouble keeping up with original works of fiction and a suprisingly scant history of being obsessed with something enough to track down more iterations of it and its characters. However, if my friend James recommends something to read I’ll usually try it out, because he’s thoughtful that way – he’ll have actually considered my tastes in relation to the work that he’s recommending.
James is into reading about a lot of things, and rationality is one of those subjects. He also blew through all of the Harry Potter books in a couple of days a few years back. Then he found out about Eliezer Yudkowsky, rationalist, researcher of Artificial Intelligence, founder of the Singularity Institute, autodidact, friend of hedge-funder/venture capitalist Peter Thiel, and author of a massive piece of fanfiction based in Harry Potter’s Universe. It is, as far as I can tell, massively popular and has been translated into ten languages so far, by volunteers.
The premise of Yudkowsky’s story is that Harry Potter did not grow up in a cupboard under the stairs, bullied by small-minded, imagnation-averse Dursleys. He grew up the adopted son in the very happy Evans-Verres household and learned about science fiction, philosophy, science, and anything else he was interested in knowing. This happened because Petunia begged her sister, Lily, to make her pretty. She was dating a man named Vernon and knew that she wanted more in life, so she begged and begged until her magical sister used a potion to give Petunia beauty and, therefore, Petunia believes, a leg up in life. So Petunia stopped hating her sister and herself, and when Harry was dropped on her doorstep she raised him lovingly. Of course, in a household with a science professor at its head, she couldn’t say anything about magic. So the acceptance letter from Hogwarts is still a surprise.
Instead of running from the letter, Harry and his stepdad discuss with his stepmother why magic can or can’t be real.
“. . . some part of Harry was utterly convinced that magic was real, and had been since the instant he saw the putative letter from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Harry rubbed his forehead, grimacing. Don’t believe everything you think, one of his books had said.
But this bizarre certainty… Harry was finding himself just expecting that, yes, a Hogwarts professor would show up and wave a wand and magic would come out. The strange certainty was making no effort to guard itself against falsification – wasn’t making excuses in advance for why there wouldn’t be a professor, or the professor would only be able to bend spoons.
Where do you come from, strange little prediction? Harry directed the thought at his brain. Why do I believe what I believe?
Usually Harry was pretty good at answering that question, but in this particular case, he had no clue what his brain was thinking.”
You can see that from the start this is a more curious Harry than the one we know. Yudkowsky uses the characters and world that J.K. Rowling made up, changes a basic fact about Harry’s life, and sets him out to explore the very things that Yudkowsky has dedicated his life to. . . but in a magical universe.
So, Harry doesn’t just accept the money his parents left him. He figures out the exchange rate. And bargains to get more than McGonagall wants to give him.
Harry doesn’t just accept magic. He has to figure out how it works.
Harry doesn’t accept the House system at Hogwarts, or the bigotry against Muggles. He tries to change Draco’s mind by introducing him to the concepts of the Scientific Method.
Harry can be really annoying at first because he spends so. much. time. infodumping about science, scientific method, skepticism, scientific history and science, but it’s worth waiting for him to settle into Hogwarts and for the other plot points to start their machinations. Yudkowsky is still not done with the school year and he’s on Chapter 85. There may be no real mention of the Philosopher’s Stone yet, but we do have military theory, a trip inside Azkaban, a murder trial, and more to read about. I’m totally and utterly hooked on the interpretation that he’s creating, even if I still don’t get some of the science that Harry knows inside and out.
HPMOR works because, even if it pokes fun at the inconsistencies in Rowling’s magic / emphasis on Quidditch / structure of the Hogwarts school system, it knows the power of her story and manages to capture some of it. Yudkowsky has to be a fan, otherwise his fanfiction would be all snark and no heart.
It’s available free (of course) online, in RSS, EPUB, PDF, and more.