Fan fiction is in the news lately. This genre, in which fans of books, movies, or television shows like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Harry Potter write their own versions of their beloved stories began with the Star Trek fanzines of the 1960s and 1970s, but has come into its own in the Internet era, with major repository websites like fanfiction.net hosting literally millions of stories.
The reason for the recent boost in media attention over the past few months was mainly the release of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, which was based on a book, which started out as Twilight fan fiction. (Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele are basically Edward Cullen and Isabella Swan with the serial numbers filed off.) However, the majority of fan fiction is not this sort of erotica/romance novel fare. The majority of it is age appropriate for young adults, if not children, and some of it is quite well-written.
I haven’t touched on fan fiction or other fan works much on my blog, although I have reviewed Star Trek Continues, a fan-made series that tries to remake the original Star Trek as closely as possible and does a pretty good job. I plan to post another review soon of the episodes that have aired since. I most stick to original works here, but today, I am breaking my usual pattern to bring your attention to a particular interesting and well-written work of fan fiction, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, also known as HPMOR.
It’s perhaps fitting that HPMOR, the product of five years of work, finished right at the time that fan fiction in general has gotten its biggest media boost in years. This story, written by artificial intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky under the pen name less wrong, tells the story of Harry Potter, here named Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres (HJPEV), from a scientific perspective, with Harry as a budding scientist. And it is truly epic in scope–more than half the length of the entire original Harry Potter series.
There are two main differences between HPMOR and the original books. First off, everyone is smarter and more sensible. Draco Malfoy doesn’t pick fights. Instead, he uses shrewd manipulation, like a good Slytherin, just like his father taught him. Professor McGonagall preemptively warns her students to be careful around Professor Quirrell, because his job is cursed so that he’ll do something to get himself fired. Mad-Eye Moody is so paranoid that he actually tells Dumbledore to check him for Polyjuice if he ever starts acting out of character. And so on.
The second big difference, the “point of departure”, lies in a particular event that happens. To say what it is would spoil the ending, but a lot of the story follows from the consequences of that event. Most notably, Harry’s Aunt Petunia marries a brilliant scientist instead of Vernon Dursley, and Harry is raised in a loving home and taught high school level science. As a result, Harry goes into Hogwarts acting like a pretentious college freshman physics student. (But he still can’t read faster than Hermione, even with a Time Turner.)
And magic will never be the same.
I first encountered HPMOR when David Brin, author of one of my all-time favorite novels, Existence, recommended it on his blog, Contrary Brin. Specifically, he wrote that it “[explores] JK Rowling’s world with far greater intensity and curiosity than the original.” I read it based on that recommendation, and I really loved it. It’s very well written (and that alone is saying something thanks to Sturgeon’s Law). It’s absolutely hilarious in the early chapters (like the original books, it gets much darker and more serious in the later chapters, but it still retains great moments of humor). The emotional impact is keenly felt all the way to the end. And it’s filled with deep scientific reasoning and weirdness when it comes in contact with magic.
So all around, it’s a really good “book”. I do have one criticism, though, and a warning for potential readers. The criticism is how Mr. Yudkowsky occasionally goes on long, rambling tangents about the science or philosophy of the situation. In many places, these do add something to the story, but they can sometimes be over the top and a little grating.
My warning is that readers should know that Mr. Yudkowsky is a hardcore transhumanist. He has an atheist and materialist worldview (though this is not strictly required for transhumanism), and he has strong opinions that (most prominently) death both can and should be eliminated from the world via technology, and these views show through quite a bit in HPMOR. Not being an atheist nor a transhumanist myself, I still enjoyed the story very much, and the resolution was not as tied up in these views as I had feared. In short, I would still recommend the story to people who do not share or even oppose Mr. Yudkowsky’s views, but I think you should know what you’re getting into.
My rating: 5 out of 5.