By Less Wrong
Status: Complete, Word Count: 116,500, Pairing: None, Genre: Drama/Humour
Summary: Chapters 1 – 22 of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality
Listen to the Audiobook, Narrated by Eneasz Brodski, Here: http://media.blubrry.com/hpmor/p/www.hpmorpodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/episodes/HPMoR_Part_1.m4b
Disclaimers: Although this fic was uploaded to ff.net under the name Less Wrong, the name of the author is Eliezer Yudkowsky, and I will be referring to him as Yudkowsky for the rest of this review. I should also make clear that the way I experienced this fic is through the official audiobook (linked above.) While this doesn’t change any of the actual text being discussed, it is very likely that an especially excellent voice, or an especially bad voice could colour my judgement on certain scenes and even overall characters. So if this review persuades you to either read or hold off on Methods of Rationality, do keep in mind that all of this is just my opinion, and this is just one instance where that becomes a bit more obvious and quantifiable than it normally would be.
Characterization: Of the characters mentioned in HPMOR, the ones important for this opening arc are Harry, Hermione, Draco, Dumbledore, Quirrell, and McGonagall. These are the characters Yudkowsky focuses on developing, and the ones who I have the most to say about. But let’s get a few small things out of the way. Although he hardly shows up, the way Ron is written is obnoxious and disgusting. Ron bashing has been around since fanfiction’s earliest days, but I have to wonder what impact MoR has had on the fandom’s larger perception of Ron’s character, because the particular way Yudkowsky goes about making him an idiot is very reminiscent of a lot of post-MoR Ron!bashing fics. While Snape doesn’t have much going besides being a horrible dickweed, Yudkowsky writes that rather well, and it does feel reminiscent of Snape’s characterization in the early canon books, which I appreciate. Lastly, Neville gets something resembling the setup for a character arcs in the later parts, and I will not be judging how he’s written here until I see where that goes. Now, onto the main characters.
Of all the characters we meet in MoR, Harry is the character who frustrates me the most. Because he has so much potential as a character, and when Yudkowsky focuses on fleshing out that potential and actually writing his character arc, he’s great! The chapter in which he “learns to lose”, as Quirrell put it, is an absolutely fantastic chapter, and all of that comes down to how well Harry’s character growth is executed. Seriously, this version of Harry has some highs. Unfortunately, he is bogged down by being this fic’s main character and, as a result, Yudkowsky’s primary mouthpiece for trying to explain the basics of rationalism and various other modes of thinking to the reader. Unfortunately, this manifests in many of Harry’s otherwise characterful and charming conversations with both his peers and his teachers, and this makes it very difficult to enjoy large parts of the story when Harry is around, because Yudkowsky’s explanations for these topics are both only partially correct, and also very dry and uninteresting to read about. Again, it’s not that the topics themselves are boring, it’s that the author does a bad job making them interesting and making them fit within the confines of the story he’s telling, and unfortunately, Harry’s character really suffers because of this. Now don’t get me wrong, there is the rare time when Yudkowsky manages to blend the rationalism explanations into the story (such as Harry’s first conversation with Dumbledore, or the entire little Comed-Tea subplot in the early chapters. The former is a great moment to allow Dumbledore’s dynamic and eccentric personality to bounce off of Harry’s desire to force everything to conform to his idea of what rationality is, and it makes for a really characterful scene for them both, and the latter is just a great running gag that ends in a rather clever explanation for how the tea works, if you ask me. And it’s another moment where Harry’s desperate desire to figure out a logical explanation for the workings of magic actually creates some interesting forward momentum in the story.
Draco Malfoy also deeply frustrates me, but he has far less redeeming qualities within the story than Harry does, because while I enjoy a lot of the later things done with him, one of his early scenes basically permanently undermines any future character work Yudkowsky tries to do with him. You see, after a rather charming and entertaining introduction sequence, in his second scene in the fic, Malfoy says that he wants to rape Luna Lovegood (who, at this time, is ten years old) because she wrote a mean article about him. And Harry is appropriately horrified within the scene, but the fic then just kinda tries to continue on as though nothing happened, which is not only incredibly distasteful and immersion breaking, but it also undermines all the honestly hilarious “he has minions who suck at being minions” and “Harry tries to teach Malfoy the scientific method” stuff from later in the fic. Like, it’s one thing to have a bad character, but it’s another thing entirely to have a bunch of good ideas and to fuck them all up with one distasteful scene near the beginning of the fic. And it’s not that I don’t understand what Yudkowsky was going for here, because I do. He wanted to show that Malfoy had no perspective on the world, and was just uncritically imitating his parents, but the way he went about doing it was too much, and this scene holds a shadow over Malfoy’s character for the entirety of this part of the fic.
Another character who really frustrates me is Hermione Granger, because Yudkowsky just gets her characterization so damn wrong. And please don’t misunderstand, I do not think fanfics need to adhere to canon characterization, but I always got the impression that he thought he was writing Hermione that way she was in canon, and….wow he really failed at that. But beyond that, she never really feels like a character to me, she feels a lot more like a caricature of a certain belief system (which is an issue that a lot of this section of MoR has for me). So overall, Hermione was one of the most frustrating characters for me to read about. So that’s the main trio of kids out of the way. Overall, while all three of them have large flaws in the way they’re written, Harry is easily the most enjoyable of the three, because he’s the first character in the fic to experience growth. And what I mean by this is that he’s the first character to begin developing beyond the caricature he begins the fic as, and that is what makes this section of MoR so interesting to me. A lot of it is setup, and that setup is painful, but the instant Harry begins to develop, his character does a sudden 180 and suddenly becomes really fun to read about. And while neither Hermione nor Draco go through this change in this section, it will be very interesting to see going forward whether I warm to either of their characters when (or maybe if?) they begin to develop.
Lastly, we have to discuss Albus Dumbledore and Quirnius Quirrell, both of whom are excellent characters. In fact, I’d say that MoR’s Dumbledore has been, so far, my favorite version of Dumbledore I’ve ever read in a fanfic. He’s just such a perfect blend between sane and insane, the eccentric old man and the fearsome war veteran, that he kept both me, the reader, and Harry on our respective toes the entire time. His presence in the fic offered short bursts of life into otherwise lifeless, expositional scenes, and he was an all around great character to read about. However, Dumbledore is a rather minor character in the grand scheme of things, especially in this part of the fic. But you know who isn’t minor? Professor fucking Quirrell. Methods of Rationality may get my official award for best professor character even written in any fanfic ever award for its version of Quirrell, because oh my lord, I love him. In fact, I think I’d probably have a hard time justifying what I like so much about him, but he’s just a fun character. He’s entertaining, he plays off Harry really well, his teaching style is distinct and memorable, he somehow avoids being overly edgy, and he contributes directly to MoR’s tone being what it is, and I think that’s all fantastic. I guess, though, if I had to find one specific thing that I love about Quirrell’s character, it would be that I enjoy getting to actually see a Hogwarts teacher teach his students for an extended period of time, and to have those scenes never get stale, overdone, or boring. That is an incredible feat, and…..I just love Quirrell, that’s really all there is to it.
So overall, when you look at the characterization, you can see that there are enormous highs, as well as disastrous lows. Hermione and Draco are straight up bad for a lot of this section, and that puts a large damper on the first twenty one chapters of Methods of Rationality. But there are also undeniable high points that make this whole thing worth reading. So overall, I think I will give this fic’s characterization a light good tier rating. Think the low 6/10 range.
Plot: Let me just give a short walkthrough of this section’s plot. So the beginning is honestly really great. It’s light hearted, it’s tongue-in-cheek for the most part, and it focuses on having some really great character interactions. Specifically, everything between Harry and McGongagall is really well done and fun to read about. Then, Yudkowsky brings us into the wizarding world and begins to explain some philosophical and scientific principles through Harry’s character. Now, I think that in these opening scenes, that works fairly well. Harry mostly comes off like an eleven year old who’s just read a lot of fancy science books, and his inability to read social cues and his several severe fuckups in regards to sensitivity and having a sensor between his brain and his mouth make this interesting blend between definition-spouting smart-alec and genuinely socially awkward kid who’s just trying to work his way through the world rather humanizing. However, I’m getting off topic here. I pretty much enjoy the entire diagon alley sequence. I think it serves as a good introduction to this version of the wizarding world, and does a good job swiftly and clearly communicating to the reader what it will be like to experience this world through this Harry’s eyes. Generally speaking, I think the plot does a good job continually moving forward and keeping me engaged by putting little spins on canon events—such as the Comed-Tea during the Hogwarts Express/Welcoming Feast scenes—up until classes begin, but I’ll get to that soon.
Next up is Harry’s sorting, which I actually really enjoy. The hat is the perfect amount of quippy and silly for my taste, and I think the way the sorting goes down is pretty unique and interesting. I also think the fic does a good job justifying Harry’s sorting. Harry spends a lot of the fic acting like a Slytherin, while also having some very strong Ravenclaw tendencies, and I think that is perfectly reflected in both the way the conversation with the hat goes as well as the hat’s following verdict. So…well done on that front. Furthermore, I like the way the fic shows that Harry does have parts of all four houses inside of him—manifesting as different voices/urges within his mind—while also showing which ones he favors as he repeatedly listens to his Slytherin voice over either Hufflepuff or Gryffindor.
Unfortunately, at this point the fic kind of starts to lose me for pretty much the rest of this section, except for a few specific scenes in DADA. So a large part of this fic consists of Harry and Hermione becoming friendly academic rivals, while Harry begins teaching Draco about science, and…..holy shit both of these subplots are so boring. Like, I don’t even have anything to say beyond that. They put me to sleep reading about them, and that’s just about the worst criticism I can possibly give a fic. Beyond that, Harry’s scavenger hunt thing that he set up for himself was fun and interesting, I suppose, but it got old rather quickly. I do enjoy the scene with Snape, and the scene with Dumbledore, but they’re really not enough to save the majority of HJPEVMOR from just being a boring slog. Honestly, looking at this, I can understand why most people drop the fic before the actually interesting stuff starts, and while I really do recommend pushing through it to get to the awesome stuff, I do not blame anyone who dropped this shit at any point after chapter 8 or any point during the rest of this section, because the plot is about 10% mildly entertaining or amusing stuff, like the rememberall confrontation and Harry learning about time turners, 3% great stuff like the Snape-Harry-Dumbledore scenes, and 87% boring bullshit with Draco and Hermione which is just completely uninteresting to read about. Luckily for the fic, it does have one thing holding it back from having its plot slapped with the dogshit label, and that is the Professor Quirrell scenes, or more specifically, Harry learning to lose. See, Quirrell is an undeniably entertaining, but I wouldn’t really say that any plot stuff relating to him in part one is especially gripping, except for this one scene. I won’t even say what happens in it, but it is one of the most gripping scenes I have ever read in a fanfic, and it says something about how impactful that scene was that, when I approached MoR for the reread after ignoring its existence for half a year, it was one of only two scenes I remembered from the fic, and I enjoyed it more the second time through. That scene alone is enough to bump HJPEVMOR’s plot from super trash status, to barely scraping into the low average tier. So well done that scene.
Dialogue: The dialogue in this section is, for the most part, passable. There’s nothing horrible, and there’s nothing great. I will say that the one thing I really do appreciate is that Harry really does read like a very well-read eleven year old boy. Like, he’s prone to crazy outbursts of emotion and excitement, and he goes around quoting these definitions and big ideas without seeming to fully get what they mean, and he’s generally very charming. And you know what? I think that applies to all of the kid characters. Yudkowsky does a great job making them feel like kids, which is something a lot of fics struggle with. So I’m thinking a light great tier on this one.
Action/Romance: Now this is a weird one, because there is very little of either of these in this section of the fic. However, I do have a couple of notes to make. First of all, the scene in which Harry learns how to lose is decidedly an action sequence, and it’s fantastic. I touched on this earlier but it’s intense, it pushes both the plot and Harry’s character development forward in very important ways, and it’s all around fantastic. But there is something to be remarked upon under the romance category as well, because while this fic never has any actual romance, it does have eleven year olds not knowing what romance is, but wanting to act older than they actually are, and half-heartedly trying to do romance and failing. And while I don’t like the Harry-Hermione subplot in this section of MoR, I do really like that aspect of it. It’s super endearing, and it made me smile more than once. I’ve never seen it pulled off this well before either, so MoR gets major points from me for that. This also gets light great tier, but keep in mind that it’ll be factored into my final verdict less than usual because of how little it is actually present throughout the section.
Writing Mechanics: This section is insanely bloated, and that’s an enormous issue. It essentially serves as a way to introduce the reader to the characters of the fic, and then begin pushing the plot forward near the very end, and it takes the length of a medium sized novel to do so. That is unforgivable pacing. People give TheSinisterMan, the author of Harry Potter and the Prince of Slytherin shit for his pacing all the time, and while I kind of get it, I always felt like he justified his story’s length pretty well. This is not the case here. This is Fate levels of bloat right here, and I do not say that lightly. This could have been shortened down to about half the length that it is, and the entire story would have been better for it. The pacing for this section earns the dogshit tier. However, the general writing is fairly competent. There aren’t too many glaring spelling and grammar errors, and the prose flow well whenever the fic isn’t expositioning into the void about rationalism and other shit, so…..there’s that, I suppose. But seriously, the pacing is fucking unforgivable. This is section is getting the dogshit tier.
Overall: Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres and the Methods of Rationality is a bloated, pretentious mess of an opening section, with a very strong beginning, a middle full of ups and downs, and an ending that crashes and burns. I do not think that it is irredeemable in any way, and there are portions of the fic that I really did enjoy, but the overall product is not something I would recommend to anyone, if I didn’t know that it was followed by stuff that is far, far better than this could ever hope to be. Beyond being a lot of setup with very little payoff, it is clear that Yudkowsky was still finding his voice as a fanfiction author within this section, and it shows. It is also just far, far more pretentious than the other sections I’ve read thus far have been. Seriously, if you were to take a shot every time the fic wanks off rationalism, you’d be dead by chapter 15. This is an issue that becomes much less prominent as MoR progresses into parts two and three (at the time of writing this, I’m near the end of part three), but it is very, very annoying in this section.
Final Thoughts: Although I was far less elegant in my original review of the first twenty five chapters of Methods of Rationality, my much more carefully thought out take on the first twenty two chapters is pretty much the same. This section is mediocre. It would be dogshit if not for the stuff that redeems it, but you have to note that I’m not framing it as “good but has stuff dragging it down”, but as “bad with a few things redeeming it”. This is a very important distinction, and is basically the difference between a low good tier fic and a high average tier one. HJPEVMOR is something that I do recommend reading, not because it’s good on its own, but because you will consider it worth it when you get to later sections. I’m sorry that all the great stuff in MoR is hidden behind this 116k word mess, but it unfortunately is, and while I consider powering through to be worth it, it is undeniable that this fic is not good enough for the good tier.
Tier: Average Tier
Written on 07/18/2021