Sunday, July 14, 2013

Upon Reading "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality"

There's a certain feeling you get when you find someone who has had the same idea as you, and who has carried out his idea with some success and to some amount of fame.  On one hand, it's a feeling of deep camaraderie to see someone else who has apparently reached into your private mental space and shared in your genius.  He, too, has thought as have I; perhaps this is the most basic bond that forms society.  But then, on the other hand, you think, "[expletive]! The [expletive] stole my [expletive] idea!"

So it goes for me with the popular fanfic, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

I have always been dissatisfied with the Harry Potter as a work of speculative fiction, because it seems as though absolutely no one in the wizarding community understands their own universe.  Everyone, from the lowliest Squib up to Dumbledore himself, is completely unreflective and unobservant of their situations.  They spend no time analyzing the way magic works and so seem completely baffled when magic does work.  They seem to have absolutely zero common sense.  The creative and engineering aspects of human nature seem entirely foreign to wizards and witches, who do not use their abilities to reverse entropy and violate conservation of energy for anything besides, apparently, making housework slightly easier and playing magical pranks on people.  Some guy actually invented a substance that causes infinite money and eternal life, and no one ever bothered replicating the formula, or even seemed to care that much about it, really.

A friend recently recommended the "Methods of Rationality" to me, telling me about how the obstacle course in Philosopher's Stone is analyzed as being absurd from beginning to end, and that is when I got very excited about it.
The basic idea of "Methods of Rationality" starts with a simple change to the original series.  Rather than Petunia Evans, Harry's evil aunt, marrying Mr. Dursely, instead she marries an Oxford professor of Biochemistry.  This completely turns Harry's life around.  Rather than being neglected and unloved, Harry's adoptive parents treat him as their own son and make sure to provide him with the very best education.  Harry goes to the best private schools, and is eventually given a homeschool education from various tutors.  Harry is also taught the value of books, and he loves to read.  The result is a very precocious boy with a Asbergers-level of scientific acumen who receives the invitation letter to Hogwarts.

This major area of departure has a lot of implications for the rest of the series (for instance Harry is now a Ravenclaw).  The parts that appealed to me had to do with Harry's approach to magic, and the author's approach to the magical community.  There's a lot of tongue-in-cheek criticism of the original HP throughout; in several instances, the actions of Harry and co. from the canonical books will be referred to as just some nameless Gryffindors doing them, and Harry will mention what a bunch of morons they must be.  But I think the main force of the book has to do with Harry's investigations.

Finding that magic is real, Harry makes it his goal to perform experiments to understand how it works, and why it works, and what sort of rules, if any, magic follows.  He treats magic like science.  Sprinkled throughout are various monologues from the 11-year-old Harry about cognitive biases and how to correct them with rational thinking.  One pivotal section has Harry reveal (mostly... the methodology was fairly screwy and further clinical studies are needed for confirmation) that the blood purity doctrines are scientifically false and that magic is inheritable on a single gene, meaning that only marrying within old wizard families has no bearing on one's ability to perform powerful magic.  Another section has him testing various vowel-length patterns of incantation words to see if the exact pronunciation of, say, Wingardium Leviosa really has to be just the way Hermione insists it must be.

So there's a lot here that I like.

One is the principle that I think has to be central to hard fantasy, and that is
Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from technology
a sort of play on Arthur C. Clarke's famous rule about sufficiently advanced technology, and which may or may not be original to Larry Nevin.  You would think that in a world that has had a magical school for 800 years, someone would have decided to move technology beyond candles and inkwells.  We've only really had electricity for about 200 years, and look at what we do with it.  So I like to see someone take that sort of approach to magic.

Two is the criticism of how the wizard world relates to the Muggle world.  It boggles my mind how wizards can live and die completely oblivious to Muggle society.  Why is there no interconnect?  As MoR points out, the economy must be completely decoupled from the real economy in order for the gold-standard currency to work; Harry almost immediately figures out a way to make millions through arbitrage by exploiting the exchange rate between silver Sickles and golden Galleons.  Also, Arthur Weasley works in downtown London, a city full of Muggles, and is in charge of Muggle relations, and makes it his life's passion to study and understand Muggles... yet he knows almost nothing about us.  Why is it that hard to figure out?  He could just go to a coffee shop and talk to some to figure out almost anything he wants to know.  And this decoupling of societies can't possible persist for as long as it has, when there are muggleborn witches and wizards whose entire families have to know by necessity about the existence of magic, especially when these children go home over summer break and meet up with their old friends.  Give Harry doesn't have any friends, and maybe Hermione doesn't have any Muggle friends, but what about, say, Dean Thomas?  Surely he has old Muggle friends from his days playing soccer?  He's bound to at least tell them about wizards.  Petunia also knew that her sister was a witch, and told her husband about it; maybe the Dursleys were especially anti-magic and didn't tell anyone about it, but Hermione's parents seemed quite proud about their daughter's abilities.  So in Methods of Rationality, the author has more and more Muggle ideas and understandings enter in to the wizard world through the various muggleborns, and especially through Harry.

And three is the criticism about the original story.  Just as an example, Ms. McGonagall gives  Harry a Time-Turner in order treat his sleeping disorder.  Harry freaks out.  They would give away a device with the potential to destroy the entire spacetime continuum to a little kid to treat a sleeping disorder; like they have no idea how dangerous a device it is.  When she mentions that sometimes they shatter, he suggests they put protective cases around them rather than having exposed glass, and McGonagall blithely states what a great idea that is, and she'll suggest it to the Ministry.  Harry concludes that all wizards are stupid.  The most brilliant is the DADA instructor finishes their entire curriculum in five minutes: if it has a brain and attacks you, use the Killing Curse, which kills everything no matter what and is completely unblockable; if it is a Dementor, then Apparate away.  Done.  Defense against every magical creature finished in five minutes, the rest of class can focus on fighting Dark Wizards.  Just use the Killing Curse.

This is exactly the sort of thing that has always bothered me.  "Hey, what if we don't make our time machines out of breakable glass?"  No one ever asked that question.  "Hey, why don't we just use the Killing Curse to kill the dragon guarding the vault, rather than fighting it with stun spells?"  MoR attempts to explore all of these stupidities of the original HP world and engineer better solutions to the problems.

However (and maybe this is bitter envy talking) I'm afraid that I can't say I really enjoyed MoR.  Let me fix that.  For the first 20 or so chapters I enjoyed the heck out of it.  It sent me laughing and quoting it to everyone in ear shot and posting excerpts from it at my various friends who have dared defend Harry Potter against my superior literary criticism.  I loved it.  Somewhere between chapter 20 and 30 the story devolved from poking subtle fun at the Harry Potter series and exploring magic scientifically, to a bizarre series of power politics and dominance struggles that I can only refer to as dog mounting.  It also began to magnify one of the worst problems of the original books; the entire world revolves around Harry Potter.

In the originals, Harry is a mostly average kid who tries to keep his head down and everyone forces fame on him.  In MoR, Harry goes out of his way to exert influence wherever he can.  Eventually, the DADA teacher forms a sort of war-games league and of course Harry, Draco, and Hermione become "generals" of the various factions.  Everyone in the armies are 1st years.  Even though all the other years have their own war-games league with their own armies, the entire school becomes embroiled in the rivalries of the 1st year armies, nearly leading to an "explosion" of chaos (that's the term MoR uses).

So why?  Why aren't the 17-year-olds more interested in their own Varsity-level war games, rather than the silly pee-wee league?

 Later, the DADA instructor has promised to grant a prize to the student with the most points from the games; this ends up being Harry, Draco, and Hermione.  There are no 5th years even mentioned as being possible contenders.  The DADA instructor gives out the reward to the winner of the 1st year competition wit ha great speech that the entire school gathers to hear, then each of the three 1st year students gives their own speech.

Why?  Why is there even a ceremony, and why does anyone care, and why does anyone care about them enough to give them speech-time?

Because the author cares, and thinks we should care.

Therefore all the supporting characters care.

In the originals, I could at least pretend that the other students had lives besides preening over Harry and his ever move.  In MoR, no, Harry is Very Important, and the author wants you to know he is, and so the other characters exist to constantly and at all times cheer on Harry Potter and marvel at his brilliance.  He routinely engages in political and intellectual debates with grown adults and corners them, despite being 11.  It gets really old and impossible to believe, and also makes it impossible to find the characters interesting.

The whole thing stopped being any kind of story, or any kind of satire, or any kind of deconstruction, or any kind of attempt to investigate magic scientifically.  It basically just turned in to an Author Tract.  And so, sadly, I stopped reading.

And it is sad.  I really liked the idea of the series.  I thought it had promise to be the deconstruction of Harry Potter that I wish I had written.

I write this criticism in hopes that amazing works of genius will stop ruining themselves by succumbing to the same stupid anime-like cycle of super-charged type-A competition dominance power plays over and over.  It gets really old, and is one of the best ways to cut off my interest in the work.  Once more, I find a story with a brilliant premise that has completely forgotten its premise and gotten lost in a maze of who-is-turning-who that really I find uncompelling in addition to unconvincing.  Writers, please stop doing this, and please get better editors and listen to your editors.  I think it'd be great if the author of Methods of Rationality wrote something else and paid attention to this stuff, especially if he wrote a criticism of Harry Potter and paid attention to this stuff, and especially if he re-wrote MoR paying attention to this stuff, because he has some wonderfully insightful ideas about speculative fantasy.

And that's all I got.

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