Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Assuming you have not been living under a rock, you know who Harry Potter is. He lives in a magical world which co-exists with the normal world as we know it, i.e. the Muggle world. He, and people of his kind, can cast spells and curses with their wands to achieve magical effects. If you’ve read the original Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling, chances are that you have wondered about a lot of the concepts presented in the books. Chances are that you have wondered that wizards and witches, for all their magical abilities, live in a primitive environment where they haven’t heard of things such as electricity and aeroplanes. So it is not surprising that a lot of budding authors have written offshoot books, i.e. fan fiction, set in the Harry Potter universe. One such work of fan fiction is Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, written by American AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky under the name of his blog – Less Wrong. I had the privilege of reading it recently, and was left very impressed. This article is a review.

Firstly, if you are a fan of the original Harry Potter books by Rowling, this book will not offend you. It violates canon of course, but it won’t leave you with a feeling of having witnessed scandalous blasphemy. Secondly, what is rational thinking? To put it loosely, it asks you to observe the facts, think logically and come to conclusions. Not jump to them, rather deduce them. It’s what detectives routinely do. It’s what you do when you tell yourself, “Ok, let’s just calm down for a minute and think clearly.”

Finally, let’s come to what this book is trying to do. It’s marrying the miracles of witchcraft and wizardry with common science, i.e. Muggle science. It always struck me as strange that wizards use quills and ink instead of pens (there’s a part in the book where Lucius Malfoy of all people curiously examines a pen as smart Muggle technology) and are not aware of the miracles of modern science, many of which are indeed like magic (think emails instead of owl post). Harry, by virtue of being raised by Muggles (who love him on this occasion), realizes the virtue of Muggle science and what would potentially happen if he combined those with spells. Think of transfiguring someone’s clothes into acid as a means to harm them, or some rubbish lying about into explosive chemicals. Think of what a Time Turner could achieve if used cleverly. Think of the possibilities if a brilliant mind capable of applying scientific knowledge on the spur of the moment also had a wand. That’s what Harry is. His ultimate goal is to rule the country by combining Muggle technology with magic.

Another thing which I like about the book is its character development, something which the original books honestly didn’t have much of. As an example, Malfoy was always portrayed as pure evil until the very last battle, when his family suddenly decided to distance themselves from Voldemort. In this book, Malfoy is shown to be a thinking person not necessarily evil. Hermione’s genius potential is further developed. Minor characters such as the Patil twins get larger roles. Ron doesn’t get much of a mention though, but most other characters from the Philosopher’s Stone have fascinating roles and character development – Dumbledore, McGonagall, Snape, Quirrell, Neville, etc.

Yet another thing which I liked is the book’s exposition of concepts fans have wondered about, but never got a full explanation of. This is the most evident in the description of Azkaban and how Dementors actually work. While this is not canon, it is fascinating and appropriate enough to be believable. Another example is Gringotts and the wizarding economy, which gets significantly more exposition in ways which are nice to read. In fact, the whole book feels like a Harry Potter version 2.0, which explains everything which the original books didn’t.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a joy to read. It requires patience and an open mind, but if you give the book these, it will reward you back handsomely. Recommended to (almost) everyone. The book is free to read and is available from its website.