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.

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Heaven’s Vault, Disco Elysium

My blog has hit a bit of a slump–the coronavirus has taken the wind out of everything that isn’t itself. But if I were to examine the more direct causes for the slump, I’d have to look at video games. Yes, I’m playing video games instead of blogging. Well why don’t I blog about video games?

In the past month, I played two narrative video games: Heaven’s Vault and Disco Elysium.  These are my brief reviews.

Heaven’s Vault is a game about an archaeologist trying to understand the collapse of an ancient civilization. It takes place in a low-tech sci-fi environment where people sail between the “moons” of a nebula, but only really through the use of ancient tech. This game features four main gameplay loops: sailing between moons, exploring sites, dialogue trees, and translating ancient text.

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Against the liberation/assimilation lens

Liberationism vs assimilationism is a historically important dichotomy, which dates back to the gay liberation movement of the 1960s.  It put a name to certain political disagreements among LGBT/queer people that persist to the present day.  That said, in the present day, liberationism/assimilationism is less relevant, just one lens of many that we may apply whenever it seems particularly apt (e.g.).  And often, when we do talk about the dichotomy, we feel the need to re-explain what the dichotomy even is.

Ahem…  In a contemporary context, assimiliationism refers to the desire to blend in with mainstream culture, to emphasize “we’re the same”; while liberationism refers to a desire for more radical change.  A somewhat longer explanation is available here.

A recent video by Rowan Ellis revives the liberation/assimilation dichotomy for the purpose of understanding different forms of queer representation.  I hate it, and it illustrates how the liberation/assimilation lens can go so wrong.

The primary problem, is that “liberation vs assimilation” has largely been collapsed into “good vs bad”, while explicitly denying it.  Rowan Ellis says,

It’s not necessarily that assimilation films are bad and liberation films are good.  […] In the way in which it deals with LGBT stories and identities, for me, the liberation stuff comes up top. (14:23)

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Re-reading Shadow & Claw

After blogging about author Gene Wolfe, I decided to go back and re-read The Book of the New Sun.  I just finished Shadow & Claw, the first two books of the tetralogy.  Hmm… I wrote that blog back in April, so it took me 7 months.  I take my sweet time!

It’s a different experience the second time around.  My recollection of the later books sheds new light on earlier events.  But perhaps more significantly, I felt no need to avoid spoilers, and thus could freely peruse the secondary literature.

It’s surprising just how much secondary literature there is on The Book of the New Sun.  There’s, Ultan’s Library, a subreddit, as well as two full books (Solar Labyrinth and Lexicon Urthus).  And honestly if you just google stuff, you can find discussion in all sorts of places.  Most of which is unreadable crap, of course.  The commentary that I found to be most helpful was the SUNS SUNS SUNS series from a blogger by the name of Kate Sherrod.  Sadly it stops short of the end of the second book, so I guess I’ll have to find something else for the second half.

I have half a mind to write my own blog series, which I think I could do better than most of the internet.  Perhaps it’s not worth my time.  But I will indulge myself a bit with some scattered analyses.

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Webcomics I’ve read to completion

I’m really into webcomics.  I like the art, the writing, the humor.  I appreciate the low barrier to entry, which means all the stuff that people complain there isn’t enough of in movies or TV (like queer representation) is available in webcomics in abundance.  And I like how a good webcomic develops its story at a trickle pace over the course of many years.

Of course, the problem is that sometimes a webcomic stops before finishing, or I stop reading before it finishes.  When a webcomic is done well, the journey is worthwhile even if you don’t make it to the end.  But still… it’s nice to make it to the end.

I have a list of webcomics that I read to completion, and I’d like to share them.  Most of these, I read many years ago, so I won’t remember all the details, but the fact that I can say anything is a testament to their value.  And if you’d like to relive the experience of getting webcomic updates at a trickle pace, I recommend Comic Rocket, which keeps bookmarks, and generates customizable rss feeds.

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Different ways of enjoying fiction

In the realm of games, it is widely acknowledged that different people enjoy different aspects of games, and for different reasons. There are several theories that attempt to describe different kinds of fun or different player types. Marc LeBlanc has his theory of 8 kinds of fun: Sensation, Fantasy, Narrative, Challenge, Fellowship, Discovery, Expression, and Submission. Then there’s Bartle’s taxonomy, which classifies players of online multiplayer games into four types: Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, or Killers. In Magic: The Gathering people commonly discuss Johnny, Timmy, and Spike, three archetypes of what people like about the game.

If we can recognize that different people enjoy different aspects of games, then we can also recognize that different people also enjoy different aspects of stories. This may seem like a trivial point, but one that we rarely think about directly.

I think the different ways of enjoying games are more obvious because they often result in different player behaviors, but the different ways of enjoying stories tend to be invisible.  Invisible… except in fandom. So, if you wanted to go looking for theories of how different people enjoy fiction for different reasons, I believe the place to look is in fandom. Unfortunately, I don’t actually involve myself in any fandoms, but I’m sure some of my readers do, so I’d be happy to hear from you.

For now, I’ll just toss a few preliminary ideas around.

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“Shipping” is a fandom term that refers to a desire to see two fictional characters in a relationship. Shipping includes many behaviors, such as…

  • Wanting canon to bring the characters together.
  • Wanting to interpret canon in such a way that it makes sense for the characters to be together, or that they’re already together.
  • Fantasizing about two characters being together, regardless of whether that would make sense.
  • Wanting to produce or consume fan works that portray the characters together.
  • Rooting for a particular relationship over the alternatives, similar to how sportsball fandoms root for teams.

As a person who has always been on the outside of fandoms, shipping doesn’t really make sense to me. That is, I have difficulty imagining ever feeling that way about characters. Sometimes I like romantic arcs in fiction, and I even enjoy stories in the romance genre, but I don’t fantasize about counterfactual relationships between characters.

But perhaps it’s something I can understand after all. Because you see, I have fantasies in the opposite direction.

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