Anthology Introduction (expand)
In 2010, Eliezer Yudkowsky unleashed a striking new subgenre upon the SF/F world when he posted the first chapter of the soon-to-become epic fanfic “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.” Yudkowsky had already drawn attention in tech and futurist circles, as the author of a long-running series of essays that focused on improving clarity of thinking. Upon incorporated these principles into his fiction, he found himself scratching a literary itch that had been growing for years. The popularity of this seminal work exploded. Quickly the audience that loved this style came together, and they began to pursue it relentlessly. They dubbed it “Rational Fiction.”
From this pursuit came the question “Aside from Yudkowsky’s works… just what is Rational Fiction?” As people sought to find and recommend Rational Fiction, they needed a way to define it. After years of conversation and much spilled ink, a wary consensus emerged among the fan base.
It’s been said that “…the mere act of creating a word can cause your mind to allocate a category, and thereby trigger unconscious inferences of similarity.” This anthology is partly intended to be an instruction-by-example. Reading varied examples of Rational Fiction is what builds such inferences of similarity. Short form examples can be read far quicker than novels and series. And collecting many of them together in one location makes doing so convenient. I also comment in the individual introductions to each story why I think it displays the characteristics of Rational Fiction.
Of course, as a fan of the genre, I am also doing this because I think these stories are great. They don’t need any fancy theme tying them together, or weighty introductions to announce them. Anyone could sit down and just read the stories and have a fantastic time. But for those who are also interested in this whole “Rational Fiction” angle, well, I hope this is of value for you as well. 🙂
[note that this “online anthology” is just a fancy way to dress up a collection of links. Each link points to a site that holds publication rights to the story in question, and makes that story available online. None of the authors have been contacted, and there is no endorsement from any author or publisher.]
introduction to Exhalation
Introduction to Exhalation
Ted Chiang is the most recommended short story author in Rationalist circles, so it’s almost a requirement that this anthology start with one of his works. Rational Fiction is heavily “Simulationist.” In short, this means an author first creates a world with rules different from our own (eg. “people die of an aneurysm when they reach the age of 50”) and then extrapolates what sort of society would grow within that framework. They then place a story within that society to explore the change’s implications. Ted Chiang is a master of this. He takes apart our world, tinkers with one small aspect of it, and then puts it all back together and watches the changes that cascade from this alteration.
“Exhalation” does double-duty in this anthology, as it also guides the reader through the emotional experience of Doing Science. Anyone can be told what the scientific method is, and how it can be applied, much like anyone can be told what the feeling of “love” entails. The purpose of fiction is to actually make the reader feel the emotion of falling in love. Or, in this case, the intellectual and emotional journey of unraveling a scientific mystery and discovering a hidden truth about the world. Rational Fiction isn’t shy about its pro-science stance. Not all Rational Fiction is about giving the reader the experience of applying scientific principles to real problems, but it is one of the things the overall genre strives for.
about Ted Chiang
About Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang is a celebrated writer of short fiction, winner of multiple Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards. He was born and raised in Port Jefferson, New York, and attended Brown University, where he received a degree in computer science. His debut story “Tower of Babylon” won the Nebula in 1990. He lives outside of Seattle, Washington. The short story “Story of Your Life” is the basis for the movie “Arrival.” Many of his works are collected in “Story of Your Life and Others,” and several more are available online.
introduction to The Cambist and Lord Iron
Introduction to The Cambist and Lord Iron
One of the hopes of Rational Fiction is that it will leave the reader a bit more rational afterwards. This can be done by explicitly demonstrating rationalist techniques. But it’s just as empowering to share or reinforce knowledge that helps one make sense of the real world. Anything that helps someone make a more accurate mental map of the world they live in is a friendly act.
The Cambist and Lord Iron does this by teaching basic economic concepts through an engaging story. Econ theory is a work horse of Rationalist thought, and its clever incorporation here (along with stylistic elements I’ll discuss in further introductions) makes this a story Rationalists are happy to claim for our nefarious purposes. 🙂
about Daniel Abraham
About Daniel Abraham
Daniel Abraham is the author of several well-regarded SF series, including the Long Price Quartet. His work has been nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, and has won the International Horror Guild award. Together with Ty Franck he co-writes The Expanse series, which has been adapted into a TV series (formerly with SyFy, now with Amazon).
introduction to Utopia, LOL?
Introduction to Utopia, LOL?
Utopia, LOL? is the first work of explicitly Rational Fiction to be published in one of the major pro-paying markets. While we are happy to grab pre-existing works and say “Guys, read this, it’s super Rational Fiction-esque!” (which this anthology does in abundance), explicitly Rational Fiction is rare because the genre is still relatively unknown. One could write things that were cyberpunk-esque back before cyberpunk was a thing, but they’re not explicitly cyberpunk until both A. the genre is an acknowledged Thing, and B. one is aware of it and its conventions. Jamie Wahls, as an associate of Yudkowsky, is intimately familiar with the genre.
Utopia, LOL? demonstrates the strong transhumanist themes that are a staple of Rational Fiction. Transhumanism holds that humans can, and should, continue to improve as a species through all means available to us. Education, philosophy, and technology are all tools we can use to make life better, healthier, and longer. Nor should people confine themselves to their meat-bodies, if they want to move beyond them, once that technology is available. A glorious future awaits, if we can but overcome our hatreds and shortcomings to bring it into existence.
about Jaime Wahls
About Jaime Wahls
Jaime Wahls was raised by wolves. Literal, literal wolves. He works at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, a nonprofit that does basic research on the question of how to make superintelligent machines safe and useful. His brutally minimalist website can be found at jamiewahls.com and his Twitter is @JamieWahls.
introduction to The Things
Introduction to The Things
“The Things” is the darkest tale in this anthology. It demonstrates a couple common Rational Fiction traits. The first is that Rat-Fic stories are often very “thinky.” They focus heavily on the thought processes of the viewpoint characters, both so readers can follow the inductions and reasoning of the actor, and because this is very enjoyable to the Rat-Fic reader.
The second is that Rational Fiction rarely has “good” and “evil” sides. The best Rational Fiction draws two parties into conflict when they both want something that they consider a moral good, but have a disagreement in values. Both sides act in their own rational self-interest, rather than opposing the other simply to drive the plot forward, or to put obstacles before the protagonist. Ideally, the audience can understand how the villain can keep a psychologically realistic view that he is the good guy, without making the villain into a competing hero. “The Things” is one of the greatest examples of this that I’ve come across.
It also demonstrates how an intelligent and consistent agent can come to moral intuitions drastically divergent from our own, which is a subject of some interest to the community.
Also of note: until The Martian became well-known, Peter Watts’s “Blindsight” was the most recommended novel in Rationalist circles. It contains so much of what is beloved in Rational Fiction that it was the go-to “What should I read next?” recommendation to new Rat-Fic readers for many years.
about Peter Watts
About Peter Watts
Peter Watts is a Hugo-award winning author. He describes himself as an awkward hybrid of biologist, science-fiction author, and (according to the US Department of Homeland Security) convicted felon/tewwowist. He writes the Rifters series, and nearly his entire body of work is available at his site for free. His latest novel is The Freeze-Frame Revolution
introduction to A Man Dies And Is Sent To Hell
Introduction to A Man Dies And Is Sent To Hell
This flash piece was posted on Reddit, and instantly received great acclaim among Rational Fiction readers. Conflict in Rational Fiction is often resolved by clever planning, careful analysis, and out-thinking your opponent. Problems are often solved through creative and unorthodox use of knowledge or resources. This story is a perfect distillation of winning a conflict by out-smarting your opponent.
The author is user u/Sophronius on Reddit. Little else is known about them.
introduction to Valuable Humans In Transit
Introduction to Valuable Humans In Transit
Readers of Rational Fiction are often frustrated when reading a character who purports to care deeply about something, but then fails to really pursue that goal. Both protagonists and antagonists in Rational Fiction are often intensely focused on their objective, and willing to take heroically drastic actions to accomplish it. Ender’s Game is beloved by rationalists in part for this reason.
Rational Fiction readers also love the sort of puzzle-solving-via-engineering that is demonstrated in works like The Martian or Apollo 13. Valuable Humans In Transit portrays this single-minded dedication to a goal of incomparable importance, while satiating the desire to see problem solving via the creative application of engineering and technology. Plus, the Feels.
about Sam Hughes
About Sam Hughes
Sam Hughes is a writer and software developer. He wrote Ra, Fine Structure, The Difference and I Don’t Know, Timmy, Being God Is A Big Responsibility. He invented antimemes. He believes that correctly structuring and normalising data is an important social issue. He was at one point the world authority on the true location of Springfield and may still be the world authority on destroying the Earth.
introduction to ...And I Show You How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes
Introduction to …And I Show You How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes
One of the delights of Rational Fiction is what we call “munchkinry.” The term is taken from role-playing games, and in the context of fiction can be best thought of as attempts by the characters to exploit the the rules of their world to their maximum advantage. It would be fair to say that a hero that came into super powers, or a magical artifact, and who didn’t immediately do their best to break their world with this new-found hack, would be considered a disappointment by Rational Fiction readers.
“…And I Show You How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes” demonstrates this sort of munchinkry taken as far as it can go, in the service of saving everything, and has a lot of fun along the way.
about Scott Alexander
About Scott Alexander
Scott Alexander is one of the foremost bloggers in the online Rational Sphere. He is probably the second most well known rationalist in the community, behind only Eliezer Yudkowsky, and has the advantage of continuing to blog prolifically at Slate Star Codex. He is the author of “Unsong.” More of his short fiction can be found here.
introduction to Instruments of Destruction
Introduction to Instruments of Destruction
The foundational work that birthed Rational Fiction–Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality–is a work of fanfiction. Fanfiction has always been core to the Rational Fiction experience. This comes from an deep need for things to make sense.
All fiction is imperfect, and sometimes details with troubling ramifications are brushed past in the interest of storytelling. Rationality, as a whole, is an effort to learn techniques which help one to build more accurate mental maps of reality. These instincts can turn just as easily to one’s favorite fictional world. Assuming that the world presented in a piece of fiction is coherent, one can work backwards from a careless inconsistency in an attempt to find what must be true about this world in order for the details shown to make sense.
Digging into such ponderings, one often finds stories just as interesting as their source material. “Instruments of Destruction” attempts to answer “How the heck could the Empire build the second Death Star so quickly?” and reaches an answer that anyone who’s ever worked in a large institution will find painfully true.
about Alexander Wales
introduction to Economies of Force
Introduction to Economies of Force
Rational Fiction has certain themes that it tends to focus on. The Rational Fiction scene is generally quite concerned about the long-term prospects for the human race, and how our technology will shape our successors. The careful use of super-human intelligences, and the preservation of human values into the post-human future, are of distinct concern.
Through many of his short works, Seth Dickinson has explored what it means to retain our humanity as we transcend our biology. “Economies of Force” is an astoundingly beautiful examination of these themes, which reminds us that some failures are more subtle than others.
about Seth Dickinson
introduction to The Sword of Good
Introduction to The Sword of Good
Of course, no anthology of Rational Fiction would be complete without a work by Yudkowsky himself. I’ve chosen “The Sword of Good” because it was short enough to fit comfortably among the other entries, doesn’t require any special knowledge, and incorporates nearly every aspect of Rational Fiction. It is the synthesis of everything discussed above.
about Eliezer Yudkowsky
About Eliezer Yudkowsky
Eliezer Yudkowsky is a decision theorist and the senior research fellow at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. He created the Rational Fiction genre with the publication of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. His other fiction can be found here. Prior to publishing HPMoR, he wrote a series of essays on the art of Rationality, hosted at LessWrong.com.
About the Editor
About the Editor
Eneasz Brodski is an aspiring rationalist, and a big fan of Rational Fiction. He produces both the Methods of Rationality podcast (which provides free audio versions of many Rational Fiction works), and The Bayesian Conspiracy (a conversational podcast about the rationalist scene). He also writes when he has the time, having produced a number of short stories and one soon-to-be-released novel. He blogs at Death Is Bad Blog.com