Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Eliezer Yudkowsky

Book cover

A unique book that is awesome if you are in the exact right niche audience, which I am. This is a ~2000-page Harry Potter fan fic (Rowling-approved, since the author doesn’t make any money from it) in which Harry (Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres, HJPEV) is a sort of bizarre precocious genius who thinks a lot about human cognitive biases. If that description sounds interesting, I encourage you to read the first few chapters and see what you think!

Yes, it is very long, but much like the originals, it is compulsively readable (or was for me, at least). The overall length is probably shorter than the original 7 books put together, but note that HPMOR only covers Harry’s first year at Hogwarts! This greater level of focus, along with the fact that Eliezer Yudkowsky (EY) is writing with a more adult audience in mind, allows HPMOR to explore some characters and ideas in a greater level of depth than the originals did. I also find that self-published works (for example, “Wool” by Hugh Howey or “The Martian” by Andy Weir) bring a greater level of excitement to my reading experience, as they are free to take weirder or less predictable narrative choices.

Some things that I found compelling in EY’s version:
-Voldemort/Quirrell is a FAR more interesting character. EY does a great job of creating a real relationship between him and HJPEV, rather than just positing a mystical connection. Quirrell also actually presents an effective/seductive case for evil, as opposed to the cliched villain yelling “come to the dark side!” with glowing red eyes (no thanks!).
-The relationship between HJPEV and Hermione is in many ways the core of the book. In some ways, the version of HJPEV that EY wrote steps on HG’s toes (now they are both “the smart one”). But I think ultimately this leads to a more interesting friendship because they have a stronger rivalry, aren’t automatically complementary, and their personalities end up being distinguished in more nuanced ways. I thought EY made a couple of missteps in the early chapters with HG’s characterization, but it’s more than made up for by the end, in my view. (The relationship with Ron is pretty much written out of this version, though.)
-HJPEV also has a far more interesting relationship with Draco Malfoy here than in the originals. In certain ways this version of Draco is much more casually evil than JKR’s version (adult audience), but he also ends up being a nuanced character who provides a great foil for HJPEV.
-Dumbledore’s personal pain from the last war gets a lot more attention. EY certainly portrays him as a weird person, but gradually, over time, both the readers and HJPEV get a good sense of why that is.

I think EY successfully walked a fine line of writing a book that is fundamentally didactic without being preachy or annoying. In a fundamental way HPMOR is similar to “Atlas Shrugged”; both authors have particular ideal in mind and use a main character to embody it. Of course it helps that I agree more with HJPEV’s philosophy than John Galt’s, but I think EY also provides a more nuanced and well-rounded picture of his ideal figure. HJPEV makes a lot of mistakes in attempting to adhere to his ideals, not just tactical errors but grave moral failings. He spends a lot of the back half of the book coming to grips with this and trying hard to figure out how to be a better person.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars