I briefly considered doing a 'Who is Eliezer Yudkowsky?' feature prior to starting the actual reviews, but I decided against it. I fear that might degenerate into personal viciousness, and I am trying to avoid that. I'm trying to do a critique on the merits here, not on the personal virtues or lack thereof of the author.
All this having been said, we can begin.
Chapter 1: A Day of Very Low Probability
Even before the story proper starts, we are treated to some short notes on 'Why Eliezer Yudlowski is better than you', or the author notes, as some may call it.
We start with an "unnecessary disclaimer", which apparently isn't so unnecessary that it can't be used to tell us that "no one owns the methods of rationality". At first I thought this was just a plug to open source software, but then I noticed that "methods of rationality" was not capitalized at all, and figured he might have been referring to the so called "methods of rationality" themselves, ie, what he thinks is proper reasoning.
Either way, this was indeed completely unnecessary. Yes, we know how evil software companies are and how geek freedom fighters oppose their tyranny through open source software. No, we do not need to hear about it in a Harry Potter fanfiction.
If he means the fact that no one knows the methods, I am 99.9% sure that no one thought Mr. Yudlowski actually owned these. Under the machine-or-transformation test, he wouldn't even be able to patent them! I'm sure he likes to think people might thing that, though.
He then proceeds to inform us that the fic is widely considered to have hit its stride by chapter 5, which is fair as far as it goes. In fact, when I read this for the first time my eyes pretty much glanced over almost everything in these first chapters, so I'm really reading them with proper attention for the first time. However, that immediately segues into an announcement that all the science presented is real science.
This may even be true. I'm an Economics major, and so I've got very little natural sciences under my belt to be able to tell. However, the real warning, which you will not see Mr. Yudlowski give, is that there is actually very little science in this story. What we have a lot of is philosophy masquerading as science to gain instant credibility among Mr. Yudlowski's primary associates, who think stamping the label of science on something gives it instant credibility.
We are then treated to an announcement so bizarre that should really be reproduced here in full, lest its full force be lost.
"See profile (click on where it says "Less Wrong" above) for: Fan art, TV Tropes page, how to learn everything the main character knows, and trigger warnings page (warnings about possible traumatic associations for some readers)."
Where to start...
i) I'm pretty sure people who know what TV Tropes is can just type the story title into the search engine, and the people who don't will not be much motivated to do so by reading the bare mention of it;
ii) How to learn everything the main character knows? What this really means is how to absorb Yudlowski's worldview of course. This seems mostly superfluous, because most people who will see the need to 'learn' this probably already agree with it anyway, and they'll probably know where to find it;
iii) I'd mock the trigger warnings thing (and I do think they could go in the start of each chapter), but considering at least one thing that happens later, they're needed, so I'll refrain from mocking.
After these delightful introit, the story proper starts.
Or at least, so it seems at first glance. In reality, what we're treated to resembles the opening scene from The Beast of Yucca Flats.
Apparently, blood is spilling from someone (whom we don't see), and someone (it's not clear whether it's the same person or not) screams something. Now this brief scene, rendered all in italics for some reason, like the scene from The Beast of Yucca Flats I mentioned earlier, is remarkable in that it could have been inserted into any place in the story and it would have appeared to be just as germane as it does here, which is, not at all. At least in Beast, the scene was there so that the audience could get a glimpse of a woman's breast. Sadly, there is no such consideration for the reader in Methods.
We then jump to what appears to be an office. This office appears to be thoroughly populated with books of various types. As later events make clear, most of these are science books of one sort or another. There is, however, an exception, as "[o]ther shelves have two layers of paperback science fiction." Because, of course, this is the only form of literature that might not infect you with humanities cooties.
But then, wha-oosh. It turns out this is not, actually, an office, but a living room. Oh, I wonder who are the zany occupants of this house. They must really love knowledge to clutter every square inch of their house with books!
It turns out the owner-occupants of the house are "the eminent Professor Michael Verres-Evans, and his wife, Mrs. Petunia Evans-Verres, and their adopted son, Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres."
Now this stretches credibility right here. Are we supposed to believe that the Petunia we know from the Harry Potter books managed to sustain a marriage with a university professor we'll later learn is quite eccentric, despite her aversion of the 'abnormal'? And are we supposed to believe such a personality-less woman managed to attract someone who would presumably be used to sophistication and other quirky personalities?
I suppose maybe he tires from such things and wants at least something to be normal, and an attempt at explaining Petunia's heel face turn will be offered down the road, but I do not think it really works, which is why I'm noting it here.
The august professor apparently not only took his wife's last name, but appended it after his own. How enlightened and progressive! Let's not mince words. Professor Michael, and later Harry, are in this story to act as mouthpieces for the author. That's right guys. Yudkowsky, like Randal Munroe, is a White Knight. Thank God women have such thoughtful men around, showing how considerate they are on the internet!
Also, Harry Potter-Evans-Verres? I hope he never has any grandchildren, because by then they'll probably be down to sextuple-barreled names by that time.
So, apparently, they just received Harry's Hogwarts letter. It's addressed to H. Potter, because the magic quill is aware of the birth of every magical children in Great Britain, but cannot divine family court registers, I guess.
Also, about at this time the narration shifts gears into past tense, abandoning the present tense that had been briefly employed to give it a faux artistic feel.
Anyway, apparently Petunia had never told her husband about her magical sister and in-laws, so the letter came as a bit of a shock to the good professor. Despite having meeting them at a few family events - before their untimely demise, that is - it seems he had no clue James and Lily were, in fact, a wizard and witch.
He seems to equate their wizardry with spoon-benders and the like, telling Petunia she should read "the skeptical literature".
Petunia, however, protests that isn't the case - they really are wizards, and pretty soon breaks down and tells her husband, between tears, about how magic destroyed her relationship with her now deceased sister.
She apparently used to be fat, if you can believe that, and no matter how much she begged her sister, you see, she wouldn't use magic on her to make her thin.
Apparently, in this universe, she forsook marriage with Vernon, with whom she was going out in high school, because he told her he wanted to name his firstborn "Dudley Dursley".
Hey, fat people with alliterative names can be successful. Just ask Chris Christie!
And now we come to one of those parts I must have skipped when I was reading this for the first time. It turns out Lily did give in, and gave her a potion that made her lose appetite and weight, cleared up her skin and, we can infer, made her generally hotter. After recovering from the effects of the makeover potion, people started being nice to her, and she couldn't hate her sister anymore. So she loves her based on her giving her a makeover. Alright then.
The professor attempts to blame it on the placebo effect, but we can tell he's losing some of the wind in his sails. Before we go on, I have to expound on something.
I mentioned this was one of the parts I didn't read, which explains why I was so puzzled about how the hell Petunia could snag a university prof. Now, the potion didn't alter her personality, so that aspect remains; that just makes the message more disturbing, however. Yudkowsky's sexism is shining through. Be pretty, and people will be nice to you and you'll marry someone much better than a fat drill salesman. I find it a bit hard to believe that women became nicer toward her after she got prettier, but there you go.
Anyway, the professor stubbornly insists Petunia can't be right. This brings her close to tears again, as she just "can't win arguments with [him]", but he just has to trust her here.
To be fair to Yudkowsky, it's possible this is just plain old elitism instead of sexism. It's kind of hard to tell.
Anyway, here, Harry enters the conversation. The narrator mentions how the two bickering lovebirds had forgotten he was there. In this, they have the advantage of the reader, who simply was never told.
Harry intervenes to inquire just how was the existence of magic proven to Petunia and Lily's parents.
Apparently, a teacher from Hogwarts had come and performed some magic for them. To this, Harry suggests all they have to do is write back asking for a demonstration. This will settle the argument, with one of them having to admit they're wrong. Harry says this is the experimental method, "so that we don't have to resolve things just by arguing." More on this later.
Harry's intervention displeases the Professor, who acts disappointed that his son would take the notion of magic seriously, despite saying "rationality" is his favorite thing.
Harry experiences bitter sadness that his adopted father never takes him seriously, despite giving him everything he could ask for, including, when regular primary school "didn't work out", private tutors.
We also discover Professor Verres-Evans teaches biochemistry at Oxford. Hmm, an Oxford biologist who dismissively disdains everything that doesn't fit into his narrow worldview? I'm gonna start referring to him as Professor Dawkins from now on.
Anyway, Harry proceeds to tell Petunia what she thinks she should do in order to win her argument, and this is another one of those things that I must quote in full, because any summary I might do just doesn't do it justice.
'"Mum," Harry said. "If you want to win this argument with Dad, look in chapter two of the first book of the Feynman Lectures on Physics. There's a quote there about how philosophers say a great deal about what science absolutely requires, and it is all wrong, because the only rule in science is that the final arbiter is observation - that you just have to look at the world and report what you see. Um... I can't think offhand of where to find something about how it's an ideal of science to settle things by experiment instead of violence or violent arguments -"'
Word of Feynman says this is right! It's moments like this when I wonder if Yudkowsky isn't just yanking our collective chains, and writing a great satire of geek pseudo-intellectualism. But then, I remember he has an active persona outside of fanfiction, and realize he's either a very dedicated troll or serious.
For someone who can write 100k+ words extolling the scientific method, he sure is very quick to resort to appeals to authority. And it's not even a very good authority to begin with. Being a professor of physics, no matter how brilliant, does not make you an expert at everything else. Not even humanities!
I wonder, did Dr. Feynman determine that "the final arbiter is observation" through observation? I will not say anything else on this subject, but if you are interested, just start here. And then point and laugh at people who are so infatuated with their own brilliance they refuse to recognize they stand on the shoulders of giants.
Either way, Petunia proceeds to try to make her husband feel guilty, and Harry despairs. Apparently, this is a common pattern of discussions, where Dawkins will try to browbeat Petunia with his alleged intelligence, and she will try to guilt trip him in return. Sounds like a healthy marriage to me.
Harry leaves in disgust, his "voice trembl[ing] a little." His parents continue to fight while he leaves, and we're treated to Harry's internal conflict. He instinctively feels he should trust his dad. The notion that there is a whole magical world out there sounds very far fetched. Which is a very fair point.
He goes on to say that, despite that, Dawkins is just expressing instinctual aversion to the notion of magic, rather than reasoned questioning. His father "seeme[s] to know very little about rationality", despite his bluster.
However, apparently a small part of Harry believes in magic, even if his 'rationality' tells him not to.
So, he will try to apply 'the scientific method' to the situation. Too bad he has a sample of one, I guess.
Still, he will follow his own advice and write to Hogwarts. He pens a letter addressed to Professor McGonagall, who is, of course, the letter's sender, explaining his name change, and his father's skepticism. He requests a visit by an Hogwarts representative to perform a demonstration to his family.
He then stuffs the letter in an addressed envelope, and, using candlewax (!), seals it, carving his initials onto the seal. Apparently he wants to do it with "style". I have to wonder why he would have wax candles in his house. I highly doubt they're some devout Catholics there.
Harry goes back to his parents to show them the finished letter. Might have thought to do that before you sealed the envelope there, kid.
Anyway, Dawkins is reading a math book, to demonstrate his superior intelligence, while his mother is making his father's favorite dish for dinner. This is supposedly to prove how loving she is. Hm, I really have to find some shorthand way of pointing out all the sexist moments in this fic, otherwise I won't be able to get anything else done!
He announces to the silence his plans to send the letter. However, he doesn't know how to send an owl to Hogwarts. Turns out Petunia doesn't either. She supposes you just have to own a magical owl.
Apparently this sounds suspicious, as it would make the theory untestable. Wait, I thought all that was needed was observation. What's this about 'theories', and 'testability'? You speak in riddles, sahib!
So, Harry decides to go outside and shout "Letter to Hogwarts", in hopes that an owl will come down and pick it. You know, it would be funny if he just happened to wake up a random owl and he grabbed it in revenge.
This could actually have been turned into an actual good lesson on the scientific method, to highlight the problems with inductive reasoning, why we use it anyway, and the dangers of small samples. None of that would make for very effective pamphleteering though.
Harry asks Dawkins if he'd like to come watch, but he pretends he isn't listening. Real mature there. No wonder his marriage is in the rocks. Harry goes anyway, expressing some doubts about what would happen if his 'theory' happened to be right. As he raises the envelope to the air, he realizes how embarrassing running around shouting "Letter to Hogwarts" would be, but that doesn't deter him. He's "better than [Dawkins]", and will use the scientific method even if it makes him feel stupid.
After a false start, he starts yelling in earnest. However, he's stopped by one of his neighbors, much to his embarrassment. Red with shame, he tries to get out of the situation by saying he was just "testing a silly theory." However, his worries are for naught, for the considerate neighbor only asks him if his yelling means he's already received his letter from Hogwarts.
You guessed it, the neighbor turns out to be Mrs. Figg. I would ask, if they had her watching Harry and his family, why didn't they know he didn't, in fact, own an owl, but this is consistent with canon, so I'll have to give Yudkowsky some credit here. It's Rowling's hackery, not his. This hasn't stopped him from trying to "fix" countless other canon bloopers, though, so why he didn't do this one is beyond me.
Harry wonders if this a conspiracy, and Figg is in on it too, to make him believe in magic, but another part of him just thinks she was put there to watch him. Note that, at this time, Harry hasn't been appraised of his Boy-Who-Lived status - not that we have seen, anyway. So why would he think 'they' would want to watch him is left hanging.
Harry explains his owl-less situation, and Figg is appalled that they just sent him the standard letter. Well, if you had told them he didn't have an owl, they might have done something else, bitch.
After she holds out her hand, Harry hands her the letter, and she leaves, promising to bring someone over "in a jiffy or two".
God, does anyone actually speak like this?
Harry stands there dumbfounded, but the skeptical part of him tells him he hadn't seen any "laws of the universe" violated yet. A conspiracy still seems more plausible, but he tells himself that doesn't make the events any more expected.
He laughs, thinking to himself that this is the moss improbable day of his life. With that, the chapter ends.
I guess we're supposed to think that is some deep insight.
Anyway, like Mike Smith does in his Harry Potter reviews, I'll be rating chapters on a pass or fail basis:
You might have noticed I didn't say anything on Harry's personality transplant. Suffice it to say, I'll be saving that for the next chapters, where it will be even more evident. Until then. *tips hat*