Recently I've been wondering just what exactly I wanted from literary fiction. Surely I did not expect life-changing epiphanies, at least not from every single book. But neither did I want my books be merely means to cheap escapism, which I had, perhaps mistakenly, long associated with genre fiction. Somehow I seem to be asking both too much and not enough, and therein lies the reason for my inability to rekindle the kind of pure unadulterated love I used to have for reading. No longer can I simply pick up a book with a fancy cover and devour it like a fat kid with a Macdonald's burger. Now my books have to be interesting but not too fantastical, philosophical but not overly pretentious, and preferably famous but hopefully unfamilar to people my age. Structures should to be organic, voices have to be genuine and reviews must be glowing. Years of reliance on the "award-winning" shelf at the library have turned me into a spoiled and picky book reader. Perhaps not yet a book snob, but definitely approaching that territory. A book vegan, perhaps.
Yet sometimes despite my pickiness, I would find a book that by all accounts I should hate, but cannot help but love anyway, like a cheeseburger you bought because you were in a rush, but turned out to be your best meal of the day. Below is ostensibly a review for such a book, but really is a love letter to my favourite "book" at the moment.
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is the first piece of fan-fiction I have ever read, and never in my life did I expect myself to fall head over heels in love with a wall of text posted on a website that is also home to thousands of pages of Harry/Draco erotica. To those of us that grew up with Rowling's books, the Harry Potter series was our heathen bible, our first novel, and the source of some of our fondest childhood memories. That someone by the name of "lesswrong" dared to "improve"on a book so loved and sacred in the eyes of its fans is nothing short of blasphemy. A fan-fiction that dared to attempt to surpass its original! It seemed like arrogance of the highest level, and I felt like God looking down upon the Tower of Babel.
Yet from the very first chapter, HPMOR felt like no ordinary tribute or parody. It was a truely original reimagining of a world that was already exceedingly familar to any casual consumer of popular culture, let alone a fan. At first, the differences between Eliezer Yudkowsky's universe and Rowling's may seem superficial. The basis of the story can be summed up by the HPMOR website's tagline, "Petunia married a professor, and Harry grew up reading science and science-fiction." Imagine, for a moment, that Harry was never an orphan, and grew up in a loving family into a well-adjusted, confident, if not a little eccentric 11-year-old. Imagine again, that Harry actually knew SCIENCE before encoutering magic. The result is a surprisingly different story from the original.
Without the insecurities and emotional baggage that accompanied the original protagonist, there is greater room in the story to explore the world around Harry, rather than to dwell on the inner turmoil of Harry himself. At the same time, the new, precocious Harry can now employ all the tools of rationality to discover, dissect and manipulate the magical world around him. He is no longer a passive observer in a strange, scary universe, but rather an active explorer from the get-go, more like a college student touring a new country, than a child transferring to a new school. While the new Harry is perhaps a less relatable character for real 11-year-olds, he is much a more interesting character for the adult reader. Harry's mix of cynicism and wide-eyed wonder felt genuine and appropriate, while at the same time providing us with an alternate view of the magical universe from a scientific point of view.
The other great divergence of HPMOR from the original lies in the tone of the story. The original makes clear the moral standing of each character(except in the very last book), including the much beloved Snape, whose true nature was eventually revealed. HPMOR never allows its characters to fit comfortably into explicit moral brackets, with the difficulties of seperating "good" from "evil" as one of its central themes. None of the characters are safe from moral ambiguity, not Harry, not Hermione, not even Dumbledore(who *spoilers* admitted that he may very well become the next Dark Lord after the fall of Voldemort) Yet in this grey alternate universe, we feel the anguish and joy of each character more acutely there ever before. Because the reader can now see how there are no easy choices for any of the characters, the plight of the characters feels more tragic. And with true victories few and far between, when a character does manage to come out ahead in an impossible situation, the accompanying euphoria is truly uplifting.
Ironically, this more gritty and realistic universe provided a much more optimistic world view than that of the original. Compared to original's utopic depiction of magical Britain, HPMOR, by making clear the deficiences of a pre-industrial, logicless society, puts muggles and wizards on a much more equal standing. In this world, nothing is perfect, not even magic. That muggle scientists have achieved what even wielders of magic have deemed impossible is testament to the strength of our spirit of enquiry and discovery. Some have found such overtly humanist elements in the story to be naive and unrealistic. But I found it to be an effective counter-weight to the over-adulation of magic as the answer to all of humanity's problems, needs and wishes. Yudkowsky allows his readers to immerse in this fantastic world, but also remembers to remind us that in many ways, we can already do magic.