Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Books 2020, 3)

Harry Potter fan fiction, by Merlin’s beard! I heard of this book — HPMOR, as it’s known — from my son, a couple of years ago. Didn’t think about it for a while, and then recently I saw a tweet from a friend-of-friends, @ciphergoth:

The fact that it was a quote from Harry Potter, and that I didn’t recognise it — indeed, it didn’t seem like something Harry would say — intrigued me, so I clicked through.

And then I shortly found myself downloading the ebook and reading it for the next… actually, month or so.

Because this book is looooooong! It’s a retelling of just the first Harry Potter book, along with much more, and it’s about half as long as all seven of the JKR originals.

In fact, it could have done with an editor. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it has some weaknesses.

First, the strengths, though. Yudkowsky can write a page-turner almost as well as Rowling. What we have here is an alternative universe in which Petunia Evans marries someone else, not Vernon Dursley. They adopt Harry, and bring him up in a loving home. Harry’s adoptive father is a scientist, which is where he learns his rationality. So his first thought when he discovers that magic exists is to try experiments to understand its capabilities and limits. Experimentation soon gets overwhelmed by events, though, as the plot gets going.

There are other differences from the original, of course, and the end result is very different.

Part of what Yudkowsky does is takes the literal translation of Voldemort’s name — “flees from death,” essentially — recognises the rationality of that feeling — who wouldn’t prefer going on living, to dying? — and builds from there.

The major flaws are wordiness and couple of authorial tics that get repetitive and mildly annoying. He has a tendency to refer to people by their role, rather than their name: “The Defence Professor,” rather than “Quirrell,” for example. Which is fine if used sparingly, for variety. But he has people referring to other people like that, when they just wouldn’t.

There’s also overuse of scenes that start like, “The boy stood in the forest…” and only slowly revealing which boy. Again, fine occasionally, but he overdoes it.

And a few Americanisms creep in: like calling the staff of Hogwarts the “faculty.” And anachronisms: nobody apologised for their snarkiness in 1992, since the word hadn’t been coined yet. Well, I could be wrong there: this site says it goes back to 1906 or earlier. No-one in Britain, then.

But I shouldn’t complain. It’s an astonishingly well-constructed work, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Twenty Years of Foolin' and They Put You in the Pub

At the end of Potter Week we joined the queue in Borders in Islington at about twenty to eleven; we got served at about 1am (and bought a lot more than just two copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I might say, thereby justifying notions of the reduced prices as loss-leaders).

On the Saturday there was a picnic-party for some friends who are leaving Hackney, as well as much packing of the car. Then at stupid o’clock on the Sunday morning we headed off to Dover for a ferry to France, and two weeks camping in Brittany. My son finished the book on the journey; about 37 hours after its release. I took a couple of days more, and then read it again straight away. Which is something that I don’t think I’ve ever done before. This is not necessarily because it was so great, but more because I read it so fast the first time. Rowling is a great plotter, so sometimes the pages turn too fast.

Also, I’ll be honest, I kind of didn’t want it all to be over.

The holiday was great. Mixed weather, of course, but no worse than here, I think

Then after a week back at work I find myself hitting an important anniversary: Today I’ve have been in this job for twenty years. Twenty years! It’s hard to credit. I feel like a poster boy for the phrase, “Where did the time go?”

Not only is it the same job, it’s my first job. The company name has changed several times due to takeovers, but it’s the same place, and quite a lot of the same people. It’s been good, on the whole, or I wouldn’t have stayed. But I’m beginning to wonder whether it might be time for a change.

Tonight, though, I’ll be in the pub. On the roof terrace, if the weather holds.


Potter Week

OK, I declare this the start of Potter Week. I'm just on my way to Stratford, where we'll eat at Pizza Express, before going to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Then this time next week we’ll be getting ready to head out to a bookshop for a midnight launch party for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

It is a time steeped in magic.


Book Notes 13: Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, by JK Rowling

This, you won't be surprised to hear, was a re-reading. I started out reading it to my nine-year-old son. He, of course, soon zoomed ahead on his own, leaving me to finish more slowly. I think that makes it three times for him. Definitely just the two for me. And he's read it at least once more between me first drafting this post and finally getting round to publishing it.

So, how is it? In particular, how does it hold up to a re-reading? The short answers are “great” and “really well”.

I’m a sucker for Rowling’s work, an unashamed big fan. And obviously, I wouldn’t have been reading it again if I hadn’t liked it the first time.

So, yeah, it’s great. Probably not the best of the series (though I’m not sure I could say what that is), but not the worst, either.

I have a view on the major plot spoiler, but I won’t go into that here. Suffice to say that I’m largely convinced by the arguments of the site whose very domain name is a spoiler (though I see that it has changed its name, now).

What with Harry Potter, the Lemony Snicket books, the Artemis Fowl books and others, we are truly living through a golden age of children’s literature (or at least, publishing).

I was surprised, when I asked my son whether he was more eagerly awaiting “Seven or Thirteen,” that he said, “Thirteen.” Perhaps he sensed that Mr Snicket would be finished before Ms Rowling; and it turns out that he was right: the final adventure of the unfortunate Baudelaire orphans is coming out next month (on Friday the thirteenth, suitably enough.