Review of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

This is my (semi-)monthly repost.  This review was originally published in 2015.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR) is one of the best-known pieces of fanfiction ever written, meaning it was even read by people like me, who otherwise despise fanfic.  This is my (spoiler-free) review.

I should begin with the caveat that I hardly remember most of HPMOR.  Like much of internet fiction, it has updated very slowly over a long period of time.  I started reading HPMOR over three years ago, and I know because there’s something in my blog archives about it.  Frankly it would have been better suited to reading over a short period of time rather than a period of years.  But this is hardly relevant now, because the fanfic has now been completed and you can read it at your leisure.

HPMOR begins as a light-hearted parody of Harry Potter as well as a tutorial on rationalist ideas.  It takes place in an alternate universe where Harry Potter is an incredible genius.  Rather than unquestioningly accepting the magical world revealed to him, Harry applies scientific thinking to it, revealing many absurdities.  Over and over again, he has realizations that apparently nobody else in the history of the wizarding world has thought to consider.

In these early chapters, Harry is obviously an author insert and a Mary Sue.  Despite being 11 years old, he can do no wrong.  Nonetheless, if you simply accept the premise that Harry is unrealistically smart, the same way we accept the premise that there are wizards, HPMOR takes that and goes interesting places with it.  It’s okay for Harry to be really smart, and the rest of the world to be really stupid, because we get a lot of laughs, and the rationalist lessons are effective.

As the story moves on, it becomes more serious and enters a thriller cycle. Harry repeatedly gets into impossible predicaments, and the joy is in finding out how he gets himself out.  The rationalist themes also become more mature.  For example, one set of chapters was on the theme of taboo tradeoffs, such as making trades where lives are on the line.  Rather than Harry didactically delivering lessons, he has arguments with other characters, and it’s not always clear who is right.  Although at times one suspects that the author still believes Harry is always right.

I consider this gradual maturation to be one of the most appropriate characteristics of HPMOR.  It mirrors the intellectual development of someone who has encountered rationalist/skeptical ideas for the first time (as many in fact do when reading HPMOR).  At first, it’s exciting to learn about all these fallacies and cognitive biases.  Everything seems so straightforward, and everyone else seems blind.  But then over time you realize, stuff is complicated, and maybe you don’t really know what you thought you knew!

Now for the bad stuff: Wizard battles.  These battles are deliberately riffing on the part of Ender’s Game where all the kids at the military school have team battles in zero G.  But as I saw it, the point of those battles was to distract all the kids with pointless masculinity contests as a twisted way to turn kids into military generals.  None of the details of the battles actually mattered.

The wizard battles in HPMOR read like someone who adored Ender’s Game for all those details.  The battles occur repeatedly, and every time as multi-chapter epics.  It was lots and lots of tactical details, with hardly any thematic content except the glorification of competition.

The emptiness of these sections I felt also poisoned the rest of the fic, as it became clear that none of Harry’s trials really matter.  So Harry plays escape artist by transfiguration again by transfiguring X into Y.  So what?  What do I get out of it?  (You might be starting to see why I despise fanfic.)

I have very little connection to other readers of HPMOR, but my sense is that many fans were disappointed with the ending.  Why?  According to Hallquist, the particular way Harry gets out of the final predicament is unsatisfying because it involves the evil overlord behaving like a typical evil overlord (i.e. stupidly).  [2020 note: the link to The Uncredible Hallq was removed since it no longer exists]

This can be seen as a failure of HPMOR to do what it was trying so hard to do.  But I feel that only highlights how little I cared about what it was trying to do.  The tactical details of how Harry wins in the end is not important to me at all.  That some of the “smart” characters sometimes behave stupidly is not at all surprising, and if anything, it should have happened far more frequently.

Thematically speaking, I felt the ending had a lot going for it.  As you may know, one of the fatal character flaws of the canonical Voldemort is that he utterly fears death.  The author of HPMOR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, is also known for fearing death, and is entirely serious about advocating immortality technology, such as cryogenics.  This leads to some good dialogue between HPMOR and the canon about death.

I also like how Voldemort is portrayed as a dark reflection of Harry’s rationalism, with all the intelligence but without the morals.  This seems like the most fitting end to a fic about rationality.


  1. says

    For me, at least at first, Harry didn’t seem like a Mary Sue in the first part of the book. He was being curious, paying attention, noticing weird things that made no sense in Rowling’s universe. For example, a character doesn’t need to be a Mary Sue to notice that the values of gold and silver differ in wizard and human markets. For me Harry started feeling like a Mary Sue later in the book where all his opponents were fools and he was the only smart person around.

    Harry being such a Mary Sue did annoy me, but overall I mostly enjoyed the story, which at least was fun to read. Granted, I would have preferred if an editor had cut out at least half of the content in this book. For example, I was already familiar with various logical fallacies, and reading a long description of a logical fallacy in the middle of a novel felt unnecessary. Whenever Harry started lecturing everybody else, I just skipped reading entire paragraphs.

  2. says

    @Andreas Avester,
    Despite my 2015 characterization of Rationalist!Harry as a Mary Sue, I now think that’s too harsh. I think of a Mary Sue as a character that the author has tried and failed to make likable, by stuffing them full of attributes or accomplishments that the author thinks are praiseworthy. Given that I did in fact like Harry in the early chapters, calling him a Mary Sue strikes me as unfair. But he definitely had some Sue-ish qualities, and I agree that he became less likable throughout the story.

  3. says

    There are various definitions for Mary Sue/Marty Stu ( or

    My own definition is that this is a character who accomplishes everything too easily and is much more skilled than everybody else in the fictional universe. A character who is overpowered (be it in terms of strength or intellect or whatever other attribute that allows them to be better or more skilled than everybody else).

    For example, at school during those mock battle competitions Draco and Hermione were no match for Harry even when both of them teamed up and had more fighters. Also, hundreds of wizards spent decades fighting Voldemort and his underlings, but Harry just killed them all singlehandedly and within less than a year after he found out that he’s a wizard.

    By the end of the book it felt like Harry was the only smart character in a world of fools, because nobody else was anywhere near as clever as he was. Even Voldemort, the second character who was portrayed as smart in the book, ended up getting himself sort of killed due to making a silly mistake.

    I did perceive Harry as likeable, and the book was fun to read (I finished it). But I disliked how Harry was portrayed as so much smarter than everybody else. I liked the fact that Harry was imaginative, clever, and always found unexpected solutions to his problems. I didn’t want him to be dumber in the book. Instead, I wanted his friends, rivals, and enemies to be smarter so as to be a real challenge for him.

  4. says

    Also, by the end of the book Dumbledore conveniently disappeared so that Harry could pretty much rule over the wizard world and change the entire society into something he liked. I felt that the author conveniently got rid of Dumbledore just so that Harry got a position that allowed him to basically rule over the wizard world and so that nobody influential and with different/conservative values could oppose Harry’s plants to change the society he lived in.

    Granted, deciding to offer free healing and rejuvenation magic for everybody was generous and nice but still—ending old age related deaths by the age of 12 is an accomplishment worthy of Mary Sue.

  5. says

    You remember the story better than I. My experience of the later parts was muddled by reading it very slowly and not enjoying it enough to reread stuff to refresh myself.

  6. says

    Topher Hallquist had been losing interest in that blog for some time, and it went totally defunct around 2016. I don’t know when the site went down but it’s not particularly surprising.

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