Su3su2u1’s Review of HPMOR

Link: http://danluu.com/su3su2u1/hpmor/

This contains all the chapters review as well as the final review. I won’t post all the chapter reviews here, but here’s the final review:

I opened up a bottle of delicious older-than-me scotch when Terry Pratchett died, and I’ve been enjoying it for much of this afternoon, so this will probably be a mess and cleaned up later.
Out of 5 stars, I’d give HPMOR a 1.5.  Now, to the review (this is almost certainly going to be long)
The Good
HPMOR contains some legitimately clever reworkings of the canon books to fit with Yudkowsky’s modified world:
 A few examples- In HPMOR, the “interdict of Merlin” prevents wizards from writing down powerful spells, so Slytherin put the Basilisk in the chamber of secrets to pass on his magical lore.   The prophecy “the dark lord will mark him as his own” was met when Voldemort gave Hariezer the same grade he himself had received.
Yudkowsky is also well read, and the story is peppered with reference to legitimately interesting science.  If you google and research every reference, you’ll learn a lot.  The problem is that most of the in-story references are incorrect, so if you don’t google around you are likely to pick up dozens of incorrect ideas.
The writing style during action scenes is pretty good.  It keeps the pace moving and brisk and can be genuinely fun to read.
The Bad
Stilted, repetitive writing
A lot of this story involves conversations that read like ham-fisted attempts at manipulation, filled with overly stilted language.  Phrases like “Noble and Most Ancient House,” “General of Sunshine,” “ General of Chaos,”etc  are peppered in over and over again.  It’s just turgid.  It smooths out when events are happening, but things are rarely happening.
Bad Ideas
HPMOR is full of ideas I find incredibly suspect- the only character trait worth anything in the story (both implicitly and explicitly) is intelligence, and the primary use of intelligence within the story is manipulation.  This leads to cloying levels of a sort of nerd elitism.  Ron and Hagrid are basically dismissed out of hand in this story (Ron explicitly as being useless, Hagrid implicitly so) because they aren’t intelligent enough, and Hariezer explicitly draws implicit NPC vs real-people distinctions.
The world itself is constructed to back up these assertions- nothing in the wizarding world makes much sense, and characters often behave in silly ways (”like NPCs”) to be a foil for Hariezer.
The most ridiculous example of this is that the wizarding world justice is based on two cornerstones- poltiicans decide guilt or innocence for all wizard crimes, and the system of blood debts.  All of the former death eaters who were pardoned (for claiming to be imperius cursed) apparently owe a blood debt to Hariezer, and so as far as wizarding justice is concerned he is above the law.  He uses this to his advantage at a trial for Hermione.
Bad Pedagogy 
Hariezer routinely flubs the scientific concepts the reader is supposed to be learning. Almost all of the explicit in story science references are incorrect, as well as being overly-jargon filled.
Some of this might be on purpose- Hariezer is supposed to be only 11. However, this is terrible pedagogy.  The reader’s guide to rationality is completely unreliable.  Even weirder, the main antagonist, Voldemort, is also used as author mouthpiece several times.
So the pedagogy is wrong at worst, and completely unreliable at best.
And implicitly, the method Hariezer relies on for the majority of his problem solving is Aristotelian science.  He looks at things, thinks real hard, and knows the answer.  This is horrifyingly bad implicit pedagogy.
Bad Plotting
Over the course of the story, Hariezer moves from pro-active to no-active.  At the start of the story he has a legitimate positive agenda- he wants to use science to uncover the secrets of magic.  As the story develops, however, he completely loses sight of that goal, and he instead becomes just a passenger in the plot- he competes in Quirrell’s games and goes through school like any other student.  When Voldemort starts including Hariezer in his plot, Hariezer floats along in a completely reactive way,etc.
Not until Hermione dies, near the end of the story,  does Hariezer pick up a positive goal again (ending death) and he does absolutely nothing to achieve it.  He floats along reacting to everything, and Voldemort defeats death and revives Hermione with no real input from Hariezer at all.
For a character who is supposed to be full of agency, he spends very little time exercising it in a proactive way.
Nothing has consequences (boring!) 
And this brings me to another problem with the plotting- nothing in this story has any consequences.  Nothing that goes wrong has any lasting implications for the story at all, which makes all the evens on hand ultimately boring.  Several examples- early in the story Hariezer uses his time turner to solve even the simplest problems.  Snape is asking you questions about potions you don’t know? Time travel. Bullies are stealing a meaningless trinket? Time travel,etc.  As a result of these rule violations, his time turner is locked down by Professor Mcgonagall.  Despite this Hariezer continues to use his time turner to solve all of his problems- the plot introduces another student willing to send a time turner message for a small amount of money via. “slytherin mail” it’s even totally anonymous.
Another egregious example of this is Quirrell’s battle game- the prize for the battle game is handed out by Quirrell in chapter 35 or so, and there are several more battle games after the prize!  The reader knows that it doesn’t at all matter who wins these games- the prize is already awarded!  What’s the point?  The reader knows the prize has been given out, why are they invested in the proceedings at all?
When Hariezer becomes indebted to Luscious Malfoy, it never constrains him in any way. He becomes in debt, Dumbledore tells him it’s bad, he does literally nothing to deal with the problem.  Two weeks later, Hermione dies and the debt gets cancelled.
When Hermione DIES Hariezer does nothing, and a few weeks later Voldemort brings her back.  Nothing that happens ever matters.  
The closest thing to long term repercussions is Hariezer helping Bellatrix Black escape- but we literally never see Bellatrix after that.
Hariezer never acts positively to fix his problems, he just bounces along whining about how humans need to defeat death until his problems get solved for him.
Mystery, dramatic irony and genre savvy 
If you’ve read the canon books, you know at all times what is happening in the story.  Voldemort has possessed Quirrell, Hariezer is a horcrux, Quirrell wants the philsopher’s stone, etc.  There are bits and pieces that are modified, but the shape of the story isexactly canon.  So all the mystery is just dramatic irony.
This is fine, as far as it goes, but there is a huge amount of tension because Hariezer is written as “genre savvy” and occasionally says things like “the hero of story such-and-such would do this” or “I understand mysterious prophecies from books.”  The story is poking at cliches that the story wholeheartedly embraces.   Supposedly Hariezer has read enough books just like this that dramatic irony liked this shouldn’t happen, as the story points out many times,- he should be just as informed as the reader.  AND YET…
The author is practically screaming “wouldn’t it be lazy that Harry’s darkside is because he is a horcrux?” And yet, Harry’s darkside is because he is a horcrux. 
Even worse, the narration of the book takes lots of swipes at the canon plots while “borrowing” the plot of the books. 
Huge Tension Between the themes/lessons and the setting
The major themes of this book are in major conflict with the setting throughout the story.
One major theme is the need for secretive science to hide dangerous secrets- it’s echoed in the way Hariezer builds his “bayesian conspiracy,” reinforced by Hariezer and Quirrell’s attitudes toward nuclear weapons (and their explicit idea that people smart enough to build atomic weapons wouldn’t use them), and it’s reinforced at the end of the novel when Hariezer’s desire to dissolve some of the secrecy around magic is thwarted by a vow he took to not-end-the-world.
Unfortunately, that same secrecy is portrayed as having stagnated the progress of the wizarding world, and preventing magic from spreading.  That same secrecy might well be why the wizarding world hasn’t already ended death and made thousands of philosopher’s stones.
Another major theme is fighting death/no-afterlife.  But this is a fantasy story with magic.  There are ghosts, a gate to the afterlife, a stone to talk to your dead loved ones,etc.  The story tries to lamp shade it a bit, but that fundamental tension doesn’t go away.  Some readers even assumed that Hariezer was simply wrong about an afterlife in the story- because they felt the tension and used my point above (unreliable pedagogy) to put the blame on Hariezer.   In the story, the character who actually ended death WAS ALSO THE ANTAGONIST.  Hariezer’s attempts are portrayed AS SO DANGEROUS THEY COULD END THE WORLD.  
And finally- the major theme of this story is the supremacy of Bayesian reasoning.  Unfortunately, as nostalgebraist pointed out explicitly, a world with magic is a world where your non-magic based Bayesian prior is worthless.  Reasoning time and time again from that prior leads to snap conclusions unlikely to be right- and yet in the story this works time and time again.  Once again, the world is fighting the theme of the story in obvious ways.
Let’s talk about Hermoine
The most explicitly feminist arc in this story is the arc where Hermione starts SPHEW, a group dedicated to making more wizarding heroines.  The group starts out successful, gets in over their head, and Hariezer has to be called in to save the day (with the help of Quirrell).
At the end of the arc, Hariezer and Dumbledore have a long conversation about whether or not they should have let Hermione and friends play their little bully fighting game- which feels a bit like retroactively removing the characters agency.  Sure, the women got to play at their fantasy, but only at the whim of the real heroes.
By the end of the story, Hermione is an indestructible part-unicorn/part-troll immortal. And what is she going to do with this power?  Become Hariezer’s lab assistant, more or less.  Be sent on quests by him.  It just feels like Hermione isn’t really allowed to grow into her own agency in a meaningful way.
This isn’t to say that it’s intentional (pretty much the only character with real, proactive agency in this story is Quirrell) but it does feel like women get the short end of the stick here.
Sanderson’s Law of Magic
So I’ve never read Sanderson, but someone point me to his first law of magic

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

The idea here is that if your magic is laid out with clear rules, the author should feel free to solve problems with it-  if your magic is mysterious and vague like Gandolf you shouldn’t solve all the conflict with magic, but if you lay out careful rules you can have the characters magic up the occasional solution.  I’m not sure I buy into the rule fully, but it does make a good point- if the reader doesn’t understand your magic the solution might feel like it comes out of nowhere.
Yudkowsky never clearly lays out most of the rules of magic, and yet still solves all his problems via magic (and magic mixed with science).  We don’t know how brooms work, but apparently if you strap one to a rocket you can actually steer the rocket, you won’t fall off the thing, and you can go way faster than other broomsticks.
This became especially problematic when he posted his final exam- lots of solutions were floated around each of which relied on some previously ill-defined aspect of the magic.  Yudkowsky’s own solution relied on previously ill-defined transfiguration.
And when he isn’t solving problems like that, he is relying on the time turner over and over again.  Swatting flies with flame throwers over and over again.
Coupled with the world being written as “insane” and it just feels like it’s lazy conflict resolution.
Conclusion
A largely forgettable, overly long nerd power fantasy, with a bit of science (most of it wrong) and a lot of bad ideas.  1.5 stars.

 

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