Ordinary Bookclub: HPMOR Wrap-up
Okay. Time to close the cover on another Ordinary Bookclub. We read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Our kickoff post is here. The last of the 10(!) different recap threads is here. If you read the book with us, I’d kinda like you to go back and re-read the conversation that Vikram and I had about it and see if it reads differently after the fact than before.
I want to make this point again: I very much enjoyed this story. I tore through it and it ruined more than one good night’s sleep because I kept saying “just one more chapter, just one more chapter”. I liked it so much that I had an email conversation with Vikram about it and then I asked you guys to read it so we could all talk about it together. So please keep that in mind. Because now I’m going to complain about it for a while.
There is a particular trick that you’ll notice if you read a bunch of 19th and early 20th Century Existentialists: the author flatters the reader. Something as simple as providing a small puzzle and then giving the solution can give a small booster shot of endorphins. “Hey! I knew that!”, you can think. Even if, if you were pressed, you’d never have guessed it in a million years. Just starting with the puzzle at the beginning of the chapter and being told the solution at the end of the chapter can make the reader feel like they were part of the unraveling of the puzzle. When, really, they just understood it after the fact. This endorphin rush can make you sympathetic to stuff that you’d never have been sympathetic to in a million years without that little burst of “hey, I feel smart” that the author was able to give you.
This is one of those things that can make a shaky argument feel a lot more solid. The “I notice that I am confused” formulation (WHICH I LOVE) can be handy to modify. “I notice that I feel like I am being flattered” is another really handy tool to use. (I noticed that I felt flattered a lot reading this story.)
Another trick that the book used was to stack the deck in favor of the power of Rationality… specifically, Harry didn’t lose anybody. Well, except Hermione (temporarily) and Dumbledore (also temporarily). Doing a quick body count of people Not Explicitly On Team Evil, Harry was not able to save Rita Skeeter (the beetle that got crushed in Chapter 26? That was her), the centaur in the Forbidden Forest, and the dog at the beginning of the Forbidden Hallway. And, yeah, the Unicorn. And if you’re willing to stomach the thought that magical creatures don’t really count, the only person who was killed that Harry might have had the slightest chance of saving was Rita Skeeter. Hermione had a small case of “dead” (but she got better) and Dumbledore has a mild case of “away” but, other than that, Rationality was demonstrated to have been far better at saving the world than Rowling’s favored virtue of Bravery.
And given that Rowling created the world first, coming along and saying that Harry Potter could have done it in one book if he were smart strikes me as stealing a base or two.
I also didn’t like that Sirius Black was evil in this universe. He was one of the characters I really, really liked in the real books. I know that EY had to switch some stuff around in order to keep his readers on their proverbial toes and that was one of the switches that made sense to have made… and yet. If you didn’t see it at the time, you might be interested to know that Eliezer Yudkowsky Himself showed up in our comments to explain a little something:
So, I no longer believe that people can decode deep literary meanings and hidden symbolism in work unless the original author comes right out and says so, but I *used* to believe that. The reason I stopped believing it is that, even though some people managed to pick up on infinitesimally tiny but real and deliberate hints in HPMOR, like the reason why Ch. 29 seems to randomly throw in a mention of Metamorphmagi, nobody managed to decode what I thought were pretty blatant literary meanings and symbolism. This is not meant to be blaming the readers, it is just the illusion of transparency on my end, but I do suspect the lesson generalizes and now I don’t believe in other supposedly hidden deep literary symbolism either, unless the author spelled out what it was.
HPMOR was meant as commentary, not so much on the original universe of Harry Potter, as the much larger universe of Harry Potter fanfiction. For example, the fact that Bill Weasley had a psychotic break and called in Dumbledore and others to reveal that the Weasley pet family rat was secretly Peter Pettigrew… reflects the existence of literally hundreds of Peggy Sue HP fanfictions where that exact scene plays out, and never once had any story depicted what the outcome would be in real life. That is, a lot of events in HPMOR are different takes on scenes that play out repeatedly in HP fanfiction.
So maybe all this is not a commentary on Rowling’s take but on other people’s takes on Rowling’s take. (This wouldn’t be the first time that a prominent member of the Rationalist community went Meta- and everybody who read the words interpreted them at the Object Level.)
I still feel bad for Sirius Black, though.
Once again, let me praise the story and that will let me sandwich my criticisms with praise the way that the management slide show I saw in the mid-oughts said I needed to: I LOVED this story. I enjoyed it enough to ask my friends to read it and every time I saw that someone had picked it up for the first time, I felt a little sunshine in my stomach because I knew that they would be tickled by it. I was pleased to be sharing a treat with them. So please don’t see my criticisms as a reason to conclude “Jeez, Jaybird must have hated it” because I didn’t.
I enjoyed it enough to notice that I was confused. And I wanted to unconfused myself and hammer out the little things that bugged me.
Doing some quick math in my head, I know that you’ve had at least a week (or more) to digest the book after having put it down. Was there awesome stuff that only sunk in after you were able to sleep on it? Was there stuff that really started to bug you after you after you had a couple of days to ruminate? Is there something that is STILL worrying at you and you know it’s going to bug you until you ask about it? Hey, that’s why we’re here!
So… What do you think?
(Featured image is Foucault’s Pendulum by Sylvar. Used under a creative commons license.)