The world contains many wonderful things. Fanfic— especially masterful fanfic like Harry Potter & The Methods of Rationality— is on that list. But writer Eliezer Yudkowsky, aka Less Wrong, stands over a cliffside, off which his readers desperately hang. The magnificent son of a bitch has given his readers a pop quiz, and one hell of an ultimatum. [Massive spoilers below.]
Yudkowsky has done the seemingly impossible (not unlike a wizard) by re-writing Harry Potter’s past, playing dice with his first year at Hogwarts, and setting up a chain of events that defy description. Naturally, I will attempt to describe them anyway. [Edit: I tried and failed.]
Posit: What if Harry Potter was raised by loving parents, instead of by the hateful Vernon Dursley? It really is that simple. In the backstory, Petunia Evans had a slightly better relationship with her sister, Lily.
Result: Petunia begs her sister for a bit of magical help to improve her looks, and winds up marrying a completely different sort of man than this walking pile of hate. A good man. A man of books and learning. A man of science. Harry’s parents still die as they did in the original timeline, and Potter’s raised with love and guidance, instead of in a cupboard under the damn stairs.
Consequence: This Harry Potter has confidence in himself, a voracious appetite for knowledge, and most importantly, a foundation in the scientific method. Holy hell. So Harry Potter is headed to Hogwarts with a razor-sharp intellect (more on that later) and enough gumption to ask questions about the magic he’s being taught. Questions that lead to innovations and experiments that haven’t been considered in centuries.
According to Yudkowsky’s own First Rule of Fanfiction, “You can’t make Frodo a Jedi unless you give Sauron the Death Star.” Ergo, you can’t make Harry Potter a magic/science prodigy unless you make Voldemort a genius and give him the Evil Overlord List.
Yeah. Let that sink in. Harry’s going to be taking Hogwarts by storm, so his nemesis has to be every bit as dangerous. Here are a couple of tweaks that have shaken out before the story even begins:
- Voldemort still died when he tried to kill Harry, but his power base was significantly stronger before that (and his horcruxes were virtually impossible to recover).
- Dumbledore’s not nearly as reliable in this universe, leaning hard into the Obi-Wan Kenobi school of mentoring: that is, deliberately feeding his followers misinformation, playing the fool far too well, and being so eccentric that almost no one trusts him.
- Snape and the rest of the Order of the Phoenix have been working overtime to prevent Voldemort’s return— including poisoning the remains of Tom Riddle, Sr. to prevent being used in any resurrection spells.
- Simply put, Harry is vastly smarter here than his canon counterpart. It has everything to do with his being a you-know-what-if-you’ve-read-Deathly Hallows.
- Harry and Hermione both wind up in Ravenclaw, and Ron is practically a non-entity in the story proper.
- Harry has a cold, ruthless voice in his head that gives the worst kind of advice.
- Harry and Draco hit it off immediately, becoming fast friends. Yes, really.
I Can’t Cover The Big Beats
So. Harry gets sorted into Ravenclaw and immediately starts questioning just about everything he learns. He’s not trying to be petulant, he just wants to know HOW magic works. As a result, he starts brainstorming in his free time, and discovers how to do partial transfigurations: turning part of an object into something else.
He’s doing things with magic that have never been done, never been tried. This rightly freaks out Professor McGonagall and the others, but they can’t really discourage Harry, either. Wizards have a rule about trying to interfere with magic they can’t understand. Specifically: DON’T DO IT.
Almost from the start, it becomes clear that Less Wrong intends to wrap up the entire 7-book plot of the original series in just one school year. Events begin to accelerate at a seemingly natural pace, but by the time we’re halfway through the story, they’re on their way to spinning out of control.
I tried to break it down into a bullet list of meaningful events, but if you read half of them, you’d call me a liar. They sound preposterous, which fits, because they are preposterous. It all makes sense, but only taken sequentially from A to Z.
Take my word for it, and read the story. It is well worth your time.
Where We Stand Now
Quirrell succeeds in getting a hold of the Philosopher’s Stone, which has a property far more valuable than creating any Elixir of Life (that only extends your lifespan). It has the ability to make transfigurations permanent.
He takes Harry to a graveyard where he conjures up an altar, unearths a massive supply of Voldemort’s blood (saved for just such a purpose), and transfigures it into a new, immortal body for himself. Then he summons 37 Death Eaters.
The Mother of All Cliffhangers (and Pop Quizzes)
So Voldemort’s given Harry an ultimatum: teach Voldemort something he doesn’t know— “The Power Which The Dark Lord Knows Not”— and do it fast, or Harry is dead… and his loved ones will swiftly follow.
The Pop Quiz: Come up with a solution: what Harry can tell Voldemort to spare his life, and the lives of his loved ones. As a cheat sheet, here’s everything Harry knows.
There is no cavalry coming to the rescue. Harry has his wand, and nothing else. If he tries to raise it, the Death Eaters will kill him. If he tries to speak anything but Parseltongue (a language in which it’s impossible to lie), they’ll kill him.
If someone’s able to post a satisfactory response in the latest chapter’s reviews, the story will play out as it’s supposed to, and we get to read it through to the end.
If not? Well. We get “a shorter and sadder ending.”
I, for one, don’t WANT a shorter and sadder ending. I’m wracking my brain to think of a solution, and if you’ve read the story, I advise you to do the same. Quickly, as we have less than 60 hours.