A brief history of the Rational and Rationalist fiction genres, their roots in the LessWrong community, and the influences from flagship authors of HPMOR and Luminosity.
Co-hosted by http://alexanderwales.com/
With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected
Websites mentioned in episode:
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationalilty
Transcript by an anonymous fan:
[The intro plays.]
DayStar Eld: Hello and welcome to Rationally Writing. I’m DayStar Eld.
Alexander Wales: And I’m Alexander Wales.
DayStar Eld: And this is a brief history of the rational and rationalist writing genres. A great place to start I think is with Eliezer Yudkowsky, who you will probably hear referenced a lot on this podcast, either by name or just as EY. He is currently a research fellow at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and is one of the founders of the LessWrong website.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. 2006, I believe, is when LessWrong is created. He started that after he was on Overcoming Bias with Robin Hanson. And then Overcoming Bias became Robin Hanson’s personal blog. LessWrong is a community blog: Elizier, Yvain, AKA Scott Alexander–
DayStar Eld: Who runs Slate Star Codex.
Alexander Wales: Luke G, Alicorn and Gwern.
DayStar Eld: And the main point of LessWrong was to help people learn about rationality, share their thoughts about rationality, improve their thinking, comment on each other’s attempts to improve thinking. And the Sequences by Eliezer Yudkowsky were a major part of that effort.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. And they spread out in a lot of different directions. Like artificial intelligence, and many-worlds theory, and things like that. And there’s a heavy focus on computer science as well. Rationalist fiction as a named thing begins in March of 2009. Eliezer posted on LessWrong about rationalist fiction. He named Null-A and David Sling as works that evoked that rationalist aesthetic and encouraged rationalist thinking.
DayStar Eld: Yup. And LessWrong is also where Eliezer posted his first published rational fiction, The Sword of Good. Which was a very short story, satire of a lot of fantasy novels where someone from our world goes to another one and is told “Hey, you’re the long lost king. Go kill this evil wizard and take the throne”. And it examined the story elements of that through a rational lens. And the next one he published there was Three Worlds Collide, an eight chapter science fiction novella exploring metaethics and rational conduct through the implications of humanity making first contact and meeting aliens. And after that he started HPMOR on Fanfiction in March.
Alexander Wales: March 2010 is when the first chapters of HPMOR — Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality — was posted under the pseudonym LessWrong, but everyone knew that it was Eliezer by chapter five.
Daystar Eld: Right. On fanfiction.net it’s still LessWrong. But…
Alexander Wales: Yeah.
Daystar Eld: Yeah. And HPMOR was essentially a reimagining of the world where Harry is raised by Petunia, and Petunia instead of marrying Vernon Dursley marries an Oxford professor who teaches Harry all about science and rationality so that when he gets his letter from Hogwarts he approaches the world of magic with a scientific rationalist perspective. There’s a lot more to it than that but that is the ten second pitch of what the story is about.
Alexander Wales: Right. And it’s quite long. There’s a lot of stuff in it. And well worth reading in my opinion.
Daystar Eld: Yeah. I’ve recommended HPMOR to basically everyone I know, even people who were never big fans of the original Harry Potter. And I’ve gotten- I want to say at least half of my wider social circle and friend group into it.
Alexander Wales: So it ran from 2010 until 2015. There was a long period of slowdown, I think about a year where it wasn’t updating at all. The HPMOR subreddit in that time was quite active with people talking and theorycrafting and recommending other stories. Both of us were heavy posters there.
Daystar Eld: Right. This was a very — to me — enjoyable community to be a part of, because I’ve been part of communities about ongoing fiction works before obviously, but this was the most involved one that I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t just people posting “Oh, you know this artwork reminded me [of something]” or “This guy made some fanart” or “This person met the author and interviewed them and these are some questions and answers”. It was actually a lot of analysis, it was a lot of deep reading, it was a lot of questions and discussion surrounding the characters, their motives, the plot. Which I think can really only be fully done in the more complex works I’ve read. Books like Song of Ice and Fire series have a very vibrant and in-depth community about that because George R.R. Martin does a very good job of foreshadowing, planting clues, having complex characters. And the amount of foreshadowing and clue-dropping in HPMOR is truly impressive.
Alexander Wales: And you know I’ve been on lots of subreddits and community sites and stuff like that. And most of them in the off-season — which was basically what HPMOR had — it just, they turned to crap really, really quickly. A Song of Ice and Fire is not one of them. That’s a rare exception. But a lot TV shows just, the off-season is the time to unsubscribe if you don’t want to see just, ridiculous stuff that has only tangential relationship [to the content].
Daystar Eld: But the HPMOR subreddit and wider community stayed very involved and very interesting to be a part of and I enjoyed my time there quite thoroughly and apparently enough people did where eventually a subreddit spun off. But I think that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. The next thing in our timeline is Alicorn posts the first chapters of Luminosity, which is basically a reimagining of the series Twilight, where Bella is a rationalist rather than her sort of braindead canon self.
Daystar Eld: Yeah. I enjoyed Twilight. I’m one of the few people I know who actually read the whole Twilight quartet, and I’ve got serious criticisms of the series as I’ve written on a number of places on the Internet. But the core idea behind it, the worldbuilding that it did had a lot of potential and I think Luminosity really delved into that potential and brought it to great fruition and had wonderful examinations of the side-characters and made them all work really well with each other and with the new and improved and rational Bella.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. I actually sort of liked Twilight too. I actually did read all four books as well. I thought a lot of the side characters in Twilight were more in-depth and well-rounded than Bella. Bella was my big problem with the series.
Daystar Eld: Absolutely. Yeah. Luminosity basically took the integral weakness to Twilight and made it a strength so that everything kind of clicked into place once that was done.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. So it was Luminosity, and then Radiance is the sequel to that. And that’s the first of I guess what I would call…
Daystar Eld: Inspired-by works?
Alexander Wales: Yeah. It’s this rational character who comes in and sees all this crazy stuff and analyzes it and then it diverges pretty wildly from there.
Daystar Eld: Yeah, yeah. The logical consequences of the changes in the canon start to expand to ripple effects that affect everything. Again, to great effect. This is one of those stories where everything seems to change from the canon but still make sense based on the canon. You can have characters that are reacting to new situations and new circumstances that are going on but don’t feel out of character, they still feel like themselves. Which I think is one of the rarer things about fanfiction and one of the things that to me at least made Luminosity such a great fanfiction. And I would say that Luminosity being as good as it was is part of what made the rational fiction genre begin to open up because people saw HPMOR and they’re like “Wow, this is a great Harry Potter fanfiction about rationality”, and then they saw Luminosity and they’re like “Oh look, this is a great- you can make a rationalist Twilight fanfiction and make it really good, there’s nothing you can’t make rationalize and make good, potentially”.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. Which brings us to November 2012, when Iceman posted Friendship is Optimal. I believe that was all posted over the series of a few days, this was all prewritten. But Friendship is Optimal is about these people developing a My Little Pony MMO type thing and it becomes this sentient artificial intelligence. And it’s not actually fanfiction. I get into that discussion with people a lot, I had some disagreements about whether or not it qualifies as fanfiction. But that was well loved, spread a lot around the LessWrong crowd, and I think that became one of the primary things that people would recommend when you were on the subreddit or on LessWrong. People were like “I’m up to the in-progess point on HPMOR. What do I read next?”
Daystar Eld: Right. It was much shorter than HPMOR and Luminosity, which cover a number of themes. Friendship is Optimal covered the AI theme very powerfully and very well. So it was a great introduction also into the wider discussion of artificial intelligence risk for a lot of people. And to this day every time I have a conversation with someone who doesn’t really understand artificial intelligence as an existential risk to humanity, I still think, “You know, why don’t you check out this short story?” And it’ll do a pretty good job of priming you towards the real questions and real struggles and concerns in the community.
Alexander Wales: So May in 2013 is when Lighting Up the Dark got released by Velorien. In HPMOR there are two, possibly three chapters where there are omakes, which is a Japanese term from manga and anime, it just means bonus or extra. They are non-canon, small segments that are like several paragraphs long, rational takes on The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the Lord of the Rings, and a bunch of different things where problems can be solved in a matter of seconds. So I think that Lighting Up the Dark is probably the first- it’s a Naruto fanfic that specifically in the author’s notes at the beginning says that it was inspired by the Naruto omake in HPMOR. I think that’s probably the first of the more widespread progenitors. The foundational canon of rational fiction, when it actually started to get a canon. Because you had HPMOR, Luminosity, and maybe Friendship is Optimal as things that people would recommend. Lighting Up the Dark is when I think that started to become a canon of work instead.
Daystar Eld: You can also say it was one of the first fan[works].
Alexander Wales: Yeah. It was HPMOR-originating rather than LessWrong-originating.
Daystar Eld: Yeah. And once the first of the people who read HPMOR and possibly Luminosity and Friendship is Optimal said, “Let me try my own hand at this”. That really- then the floodgates opened.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. And 2013 was during the slump in postings on HPMOR. And May was Lighting Up the Dark. And I’m not one-hundred percent sure that’s the first one, but internet archaeology is fairly hard.
Daystar Eld: Yeah. It’s possible there were other stories between those but as far as I’m aware, that was the main one that was completed. And following that one came Branches on the Tree of Time which you wrote and put up on Fanfiction, about the Terminator world and a rationalist computer programming Sarah Connor who actually addresses what it’s like to fight an artificial intelligence. And addresses what it’s like to have time travel as a reality in the world and a tool to use at your disposal. So that was again really fantastic, really explored the themes in a way that to me in any case, ruined the Terminator series forever. If the next Terminator movie — I know Genesis came out somewhat recently and it was from all accounts fairly shitty, but- I mean, okay, most Terminator movies past the second one are fairly shitty in my opinion but — if the next Terminator movie is not Branches on the Tree of Time or something very similar to it, there’s really no reason for me to watch another Terminator movie because the — in my opinion — best exploration of artificial intelligence plus time travel is your story, so.
Alexander Wales: I really liked the Terminator canon. They’ve got a comic book series that’s collected in two anthologies that I mostly enjoy but it’s one of those things where you don’t want to look at the background all that heavily or it starts to really confuse you, at best. So, yeah. I wrote that in September of 2013. And then in October you post the first chapter of Pokemon: Origin of Species. Which I thought was much closer to HPMOR I’d say, in terms of vocabulary and the way it’s approaching the world.
Daystar Eld: Yeah definitely more inspired by HPMOR and Luminosity in the sense of, take a canon, find a protagonist, make them a rationalist, see what happens.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. And that’s sort of where we get our rationalist/rational distinction from, is between those two types of work. Because I wouldn’t call, for instance Branches on the Tree of Time rationalist because it’s not trying to much to teach anything.
DS. Right. Sarah Connor is a rational person and she is — well, she actually may be considered a rationalist herself — but she is a rational person who is using the tools at her disposable in a rational way. But she is not explicitly thinking about or communicating rationalist ideas. So it would be a gray area in my opinion but I’m okay with calling it either rationalist or rational.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. Whereas Origin of Species is much more rationalist. It’s got things to teach in most chapters, right? So then in December of 2013, there had been very many posts about “What should I read next”, or “What are things like HPMOR”. In December is when the rational subreddit was created. Which I really wish that they’d gone with rational fiction instead, because that’s caused many problems down the line with people just being like “Oh yeah, let’s just post things that we’d post to LessWrong”, which was not really what the subreddit was taken over for.
Daystar Eld: Right.
Alexander Wales: So that was December 2013. The initial mods, I think it was…
Daystar Eld: Eatyourbrains, I believe?
Alexander Wales: Yeah. It was Eatyourbrains and Seraphnb, I think. Who has now deleted their account. I think those were the founding two. The mod team is currently myself and PeridexisErrant. Who actually might have been one of the original mods too. This all happened following a post in HPMOR in December, where it was asking what are the characteristics of rational stories. And there was this post by Vivificent who basically laid out what is currently the sidebar of our rational. And that’s changed a little bit as time went on. Things were added and removed to that. But I think it’s fairly close to being the same as his initial comment.
Daystar Eld: Right. So the subreddit was created. A lot of the recommendations that people have been making over the months get posted there including Branches on the Tree of Time, your other story The Last Christmas. I start posting Origin of Species around that time, and originally I was posting a chapter in both HPMOR and rational, but then after the fifth or six chapter I was just posting it in rational. Because a lot of the people in the HPMOR subreddit had subscribed to rational by then, so it was essentially the same community.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. That was our feed population, was HPMOR. There are some people now, I occasionally see comments with people who don’t know what HPMOR is and have never read it.
Daystar Eld: Which is great, because now they’re one of the lucky ten-thousand.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. And there was a post on the subreddit recently talking about what is the point of entry, and it’s sort of grown beyond HPMOR because people disagree on whether that’s a good point of entry to the genre. Even if it’s like, the Ur-example. Which I’m sort of on the fence about.
Daystar Eld: I mean yeah, I kind of just maybe out of personal preference, I would like everyone to read HPMOR if they’re at all interested in rationalist fiction just because I feel like it’s such a good example of it. But I definitely understand if some people aren’t huge Harry Potter fans or get turned off by the… well, that’s a different…
Alexander Wales: Yeah. That’s a different episode.
Daystar Eld: Yeah. Around this time also Yudkowsky recommended Worm, which is not a rationalist fiction. Kind of but not really a rational fiction. I would be okay with calling it a rational fiction but I’m okay with other people saying it’s not too.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. This is one of the things you can get in fights with people on the subreddit about. Whether or not Worm is rational. And I don’t think it is, partly because I know wildbow, he’s expressed some hesitance about that label. And I think that if you’re an author and you say “Well, I don’t think that label applies to my work”, especially for a label like rational, I think that’s your prerogative. I’m willing to accept it in that case. I think that the label got applied to Worm by a lot of people, not Yudkowsky and himself.
Daystar Eld: Right. I definitely wouldn’t want to pull anyone into our community against their will. But I’m more than happy to recommend it to people in our community as something they’re probably going to enjoy. First off, it’s a superhero fiction where essentially the idea of what happens if superheroes are real really is explored from top to bottom. At the basic kids in high school that wake up one day with superpowers, to the how governments interact, how governments treats the superheroes, how superheroes interact with the government and civilian populations, privatized, public, all that stuff. Everything’s examined. Everything is interacting with each other. And in and of itself, it’s just a great character-driven story, plot-driven story, amazing fight scenes, all that good stuff. And what gets it called a rational fiction a lot or a rationalist fiction by some people even, is the fact that the main character is, in all respects intelligent, thoughtful, and good at examining how to get the most out of her powers or the powers of those around her. She’s a munchkin. A term that generally just means someone who uses the rules of the game to their advantage. And in some respects maybe cheats the rules a bit, uses loopholes, things like that. And she’s able to get quite a lot out of her essentially not on it’s face impressive power of controlling insects. And that’s really one of the things that makes it such an enjoyable read for a lot of rationalists or rational readers.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. And I think a similar one that I don’t- it doesn’t come from inside the genre, it comes from outside the genre. Mother of Learning was not written as rational fiction. It sort of adopted that label, or gotten into it. Harry Potter…
Daystar Eld: And the Natural 20.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. Harry Potter and the Natural 20 has similarly been called rational but it wasn’t written as rational fiction and I kind of prefer not to try to interpret works as rational if that’s not what the author has been intending because I think that’s part of the reason for wildbow’s hesitance there is that a lot of people come in and they say “Oh, this isn’t rational and this isn’t rational”, and it’s like, well, that’s not what it is.
Daystar Eld: Yeah. Harry Potter and the Natural 20 is a delightful read, very funny. It’s a great examination of the rules differences between the DnD and the Harry Potter magic system. But it’s main character Milo is a munchkin first and foremost, not a rationalist. Not a rational character in many respects.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. The Two Year Emperor, also.
Daystar Eld: Yup.
Alexander Wales: I am pretty sure that was in late 2013, but that was one of the early ones and sort of widely talked about in rational subreddit.
Daystar Eld: The Two Year Emperor is a…
Alexander Wales: A portal fantasy.
Daystar Eld: Portal fantasy, yeah.
Alexander Wales: And it goes into DnD “rules as written”, which is a sort of a term that came out of the character optimization boards. And if you take the DnD rules as written, they are absolutely insane. And Two Year Emperor has a lot of fun with that. I think 2014 is sort of when we get into the sort of mainstream current history. In May I wrote A Bluer Shade of White, which is a Frozen fanfic that I originally wrote for a bitcoin bounty. Someone had offered a prompt with a bounty if someone could deliver, so I wrote A Bluer Shade of White. I never got that bounty because it took me more than the stated week, but then I wrote, or I posted the first chapter of Metropolitan Man.
Daystar Eld: I have to admit that I have not read A Bluer Shade of White. I actually haven’t seen Frozen. So I’ve been kind of waiting until the inevitable “Oh, I guess I should see Frozen”.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. You should see Frozen. Frozen is a good movie. I would say it’s in the top twenty-five percent of Disney movies. I like Frozen a lot, but it also, like a Disney movie, doesn’t really care about a lot of things.
Daystar Eld: I know at the very least that there is a lady who has ice powers and at some point creates a sentient talking snowman and this is not explored at all in the story.
Alexander Wales: Right. He’s comic relief.
Daystar Eld: Right. I fully look forward to seeing how you expand on that which I’m sure you do. But Metropolitan Man was again, just another amazing exploration of Superman. The golden age superman specifically, back in the forties, fifties?
Alexander Wales: Yeah. Well, golden age is forties/fifties, Metropolitan Man is actually set in the 1930s. I think it’s ‘34 and ‘35.
Daystar Eld: So, right. So Lex Luthor is the main character. He’s a rational protagonist who is examining this alien god who has come to Earth and is dispensing justice. And it does a great job of examining why Lex Luthor is not an evil insane person who just wants to stop everything good and just about the world for no reason. He is someone who is on the less empathetic side, doesn’t really care about killing people if they get in his way or, having people die as a result of his plans. But his main concern is the continued existence of planet Earth and its people. So when he sees Superman show up and understands what it means for there to be a 0.1% chance even of Superman at some point destroying the world realizes, okay, it’s probably best to kill Superman. And it was widely received fairly well. It’s another story that I recommend to most people I know. Most people enjoy it.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. The reaction was — I don’t want to say mixed, but — a lot of people had the reaction of, “I liked that story but I’m never going to read it again”.
Daystar Eld: Ha, that’s what I always wanted to do with the ending. But I’m not going to, I don’t know if we should say that because of spoilers, spoiler alert. Most people have mixed reactions to the ending.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. I mean we can talk about that at a later point.
Daystar Eld: Absolutely. I’d be thoroughly happy to have an episode about Metropolitan Man.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. But that basically brings us up to — I think — current history. The stories I’m following right now is Animorphs: The Reckoning, there’s a lot of Worm fanfic, I think that’s pretty common. It’s Taylor with a different powerset.
Daystar Eld: Yeah. And there are a number of other stories, we can’t really name all of them. But just off the top of my head, I remember there was a Death Note fanfic that was doing pretty well. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Unfortunately, it seemed to have been discontinued at some point.
Alexander Wales: The Waves Arisen. That’s complete now, and that’s one that I recommend.
Daystar Eld: Yeah, another Naruto fanfic. And there’s a number of stories now that you can find on the subreddit r/rational. We’ve got everything there from fanfiction to original fiction, from short stories to web serials, one-offs. Scott Alexander from Slate Star Codex is writing Unsong.
Alexander Wales: Yeah. That’s one of the ones I would not consider rational. But I don’t have any qualms about that being on the subreddit. I just would like people not to take it as rational fiction. Because I think if you come into it with that mindset you’re not going to enjoy it as much.
Daystar Eld: Right. I was just going to say. One of the things about the community now is that it’s fairly open. We don’t need to restrict necessarily the works that are posted to the subreddit, as long as we know the difference between them and they’re clearly marked. So I’m always happy to talk about and engage in conversations about stories that are enjoyed by the community and see people talk about them. As long as the tags and the guidelines and things like that make it clear what is and isn’t rational and rationalist fiction, you can go to the subreddit and enjoy a wide variety of stories without necessarily thinking, “Oh well, if something isn’t rational I can’t post it here and talk about it with other people who enjoy rational fiction”.
Alexander Wales: Yeah.
Daystar Eld: So that’s pretty much the recent history of the still fairly new rational community. I should say rational fiction community, the rational community is a much wider thing. And it’s not exactly important to know for people who are getting into the genre, but if you ever plan on going to the subreddit or are wanting to discuss the topics or the stories that lead you there with other people, that’s just an idea of where it came from and what it meant to at least two of the readers and participants in the community. It’s at the very least been a positive and constructive influence on my life, so I’m happy to be part of it.
Alexander Wales: Yeah, me too.
Daystar Eld: Alright. Thanks for joining us, and starting with episode one, we’re going to start discussing in more detail what the rational fiction genre is, what the rationalist fiction genre is, how to tell the difference. And from there go on to giving advice and discussing the stories and genres. So hope you’ll join us for that.
Alexander Wales: Yeah.
[The outro plays.]