It’s Harry Potter, but not as you know it.
I really should feel guilty for writing something so corny, but what the hell, it fits the sci-fi tone of the story.
Significant Digits is the sequel to Elizer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, perhaps the most famous fan fiction of recent years. If you haven’t read it, imagine if Ponder Stibbons from Discworld was so arrogant that he could bully the Unseen University faculty into doing whatever experiment he wanted. Alexander D is kind enough to offer a synopsis of his inspiration on his site, and I’ve actually got a review of it somewhere on my blog, but honestly, I think Significant Digits is the superior novel.
It begins with an adult Harry Potter in the process of ‘optimising’ the wizarding world through international treaties and scientific investigation into the mysteries of magic. With the ultimate goal of defeating death, Harry has voluntarily placed himself under house arrest within his Tower, his main scientific institute, fearing a prophecy predicting that one day he will destroy the world. Meanwhile, a superpowered Hermione has set herself the task of abolishing Azkaban prisons and Draco Malfoy is presumably up to no good.
The focus on the world outside Britain is one of Significant Digits’ greatest strengths. Sometimes I suspect that part of Harry Potter’s appeal is the complete absence of Americans. I know that must sound harsh to American readers, but just try imagining hearing American accents blare from televisions your whole life to the point that local accents, if they make it to television, sound ridiculous. There’s got to a huge overlap between Anglophiles and hard-core Potter fans. Sometimes I think Rowling took the British thing too far, sometimes her Wizarding World bordered on autarky. Alexander D remedies this oversight by showing us how magical communities organise themselves in India, China, Turkey, and yes, America. In fact, how Harry’s faction deals with the America’s Westphalian Council is a significant plotline line a book. His worldbuilding, extrapolating from Rowling’s vague concepts, is very satisfying.
Oh, and at one point, someone refers to a biscuit as a ‘cookie’. That ruined the immersion for me – cookie is a blatant Americanism and honestly, it sounds babyish to me. Probably because I most frequently use the word ‘cookie’ in relation to the famous monster. (You know he has a British cousin called the Biscuit Monster? Also I’m fairly sure his vision isn’t that great – his eyes never change direction, probably the reason why he sometimes eats thing that aren’t actually food).
Back to Significant Digits. This story is far less didactic than Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. With HPMOR, it felt like every other chapter had Harry attempt to resolve an argument with Dumbledore by giving him a lecture about Bayesian numbers, or textbook psychology or statistics. I don’t mind being challenged by fiction, but I draw the line at being lectured by it. Alexander D still bought the big ideas to his story, like space travel through bottomless gourds or the creative use of magical contracts, but none of these props distracted from the narrative.
What did distract from the narrative was the epigraphs. Sure, I don’t mind a bit of Beowulf or Aeschylus every now and then, but an italicised verse at the beginning of each passage is a bit gratuitous. Still they’re very easy to skim over and they do an excellent job of adding some historical depth to the story, which is particularly worthwhile seeing how lacking that was in Rowling’s world. I also appreciated the extracts from fictional wizarding manuscripts, especially the one about Merlin.
In my totally objective opinion, Significant Digits is better than Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I don’t know if it’s the best fan fiction I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly up there. Rowling should seriously consider publishing some of these things, along the lines of those old Star Trek or Buffy paperbacks, maybe some of the money could go to Lumos. And I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if something like Significant Digits won the Hugo Award one day.