One of my pet topics, on which I will post more one of these days, is the Rationalist in Fiction.  Most of the time - it goes almost without saying - the Rationalist is done completely wrong.  In Hollywood, the Rationalist is a villain, or a cold emotionless foil, or a child who has to grow into a real human being, or a fool whose probabilities are all wrong, etcetera.  Even in science fiction, the Rationalist character is rarely done right - bearing the same resemblance to a real rationalist, as the mad scientist genius inventor who designs a new nuclear reactor in a month, bears to real scientists and engineers.

Perhaps this is because most speculative fiction, generally speaking, is interested in someone battling monsters or falling in love or becoming a vampire, or whatever, not in being rational... and it would probably be worse fiction, if the author tried to make that the whole story.  But that can't be the entire problem.  I've read at least one author whose plots are not about rationality, but whose characters are nonetheless, in passing, realistically rational.

That author is Lawrence Watt-Evans.  His work stands out for a number of reasons, the first being that it is genuinely unpredictable.  Not because of a postmodernist contempt for coherence, but because there are events going on outside the hero's story, just like real life.

Most authors, if they set up a fantasy world with a horrible evil villain, and give their main character the one sword that can kill that villain, you could guess that, at the end of the book, the main character is going to kill the evil villain with the sword.

Not Lawrence Watt-Evans.  In a Watt-Evans book, it's entirely possible that the evil villain will die of a heart attack halfway through the book, then the character will decide to sell the sword because they'd rather have the money, and then the character uses the money to set up an investment banking company.

That didn't actually happen in any particular Watt-Evans book - I don't believe in spoilers - but it gives you something of the flavor.

And Watt-Evans doesn't always do this, either - just as, even in real life, things sometimes do go as you expect.

It's this strange realism that charms me about Watt-Evans's work.  It's not done as a schtick, but as faithfulness-to-reality.  Real life doesn't run on perfect rails of dramatic necessity; neither is it random postmodern chaos.  I admire an author who can be faithful to that, and still tell a story.

Watt-Evans's characters, if they happen to be rationalists, are realistic rationalists - they think the same things that you or I would, in their situations.

If the character gets catapulted into a fantasy world, they actually notice the resemblance to their fantasy books, wonder about it, and think to themselves, "If this were a fantasy book, the next thing that would happen is X..." (which may or may not happen, because Watt-Evans doesn't write typical fantasy books).  It's not done as a postmodern self-referential schtick, but as a faithfulness-to-reality; they think what a real rational person would think, in their shoes.

If the character finds out that it is their destiny to destroy the world, they don't waste time on immense dramatic displays - after they get over the shock, they land on their feet and start thinking about it in more or less the fashion that you or I would in their shoes.  Not just, "How do I avoid this?  Are there any possibilities I've overlooked?" but also "Am I sure this is really what's going on?  How reliable is this information?"

If a Watt-Evans character gets their hands on a powerful cheat, they are going to exploit it to the fullest and actively think about creative new ways to use it.  If they find a staff of healing, they're going to set up a hospital.  If they invent a teleportation spell, they're going to think about new industrial uses.

I hate it when some artifact of world-cracking power is introduced and then used as a one-time plot device.  Eventually you get numb, though.

But if a Watt-Evans character finds a device with some interesting magical power halfway through the book, and there's some clever way that the magical power can be used to take over the world, and that character happens to want to take over the world, she's going to say the hell with whatever she was previously doing and go for it.

Most fictional characters are stupid, because they have to be.  This occurs for several reasons; but in speculative fiction, a primary reason is that the author wants to throw around wish-fulfillment superpowers, and the author isn't competent enough to depict the real consequences of halfway intelligent people using that power.

Lawrence Watt-Evans's stories aren't about the intelligence or rationality of his characters.  Nonetheless, Watt-Evans writes intelligent characters, and he's willing to deal with the consequences, which are huge.

Maybe that's the main reason we don't see many realistic rationalists in fiction.

I'd like to see more rationalist fiction.  Not necessarily in Watt-Evans's exact vein, because we already have Watt-Evans, and thus, there is no need to invent him.  But rationalist fiction is hard to do well; there are plenty of cliches out there, but few depictions that say something new or true.

Lawrence Watt-Evans is not going to be everyone's cuppa tea, but if you like SF&F already, give it a try.  Suggested starting books:  The Unwilling Warlord (fantasy), Denner's Wreck (SF).

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Also, don't forget "Jumper" and "Reflex" by Stephen Gould. (Please, don't judge by the movie! The original novel is a supremely rationalist exploration of teleportation and its consequences. The narrator is occasionally a bit irrational in his choice of goals, but he generally reasons quite well in figuring out how to use his powers to achieve those goals.)

I'll have to give it a try, though I kind of expect to be disappointed. It's ridiculously hard to work through the impact a new technology would really have on society--just remember your own example of transmitting pictures of lesbian sex by pretending they are made of numbers. But maybe I'll be surprised.

Well, if you look at the history of media, it's not too surprising that, if you can transmit pictures by pretending they are made of numbers, that many of the pictures that get transmitted are going to be pornographic. According to legend, the first pornographic picture was taken within a week of the patenting of the camera. Still, it's not the kind of thing you'd predict in, say, 1950, unless you happened to have studied the history of media.

See also: The Rule of First Adopters

You mentioned rationalist fiction, and my mind immediately jumped to this - are you familiar with the graphic short story "Fleep"? Main character passes out, comes to in a phone booth encased in concrete, with a phonebook full of gibberish, a letter in his pocket he can't read, a few coins and various sundries. From inside the booth he experiments and calculates, manages to work out where he is, who he is, what's happened, and what to do next.

That was fantastic!

Ok. I just read another comic by the same author, Demon, about a (sociopathic) character who discovers that he can't die (in an interesting way). It's great! The protagonist does exactly the sort of experimentation I would do in his situation, and several charterers make plans that are authentically clever, and legitimately surprising.

Highly recommended.

Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series is epic fantasy with a 'superintelligent' monk as a lead character. I didn't get an impression of the character using his intellect creatively enough, but it's quite coherent, barring a few issues.

Mike Blume, I'd never heard of it, but Fleep is a truly fantastic recommendation. I read about 5 minutes worth of it and it keeps getting better.

I'd recommend starting with one of his Ethshar series, actually. With a Single Spell is I think an excellent exemplar of the type of work you're admiring. The canonical starting point is The Misenchanted Sword, which has most of these elements, but is slightly weaker in my opinion.

Watt-Evans has used a version of the street-performer protocol to publish the latest two of the series online, essentially acting as the advance, before having them published on paper. The draft of one is still up at but might not make as much sense without having read the previous books.

Eliezer: That sounds great. I just added The Unwilling Warlord and Denner's Wreck to my Amazon shopping list.

Mike Blume: Whoa, thanks for the hint. I just finished reading Fleep, that was awesome. Highly recommended for everyone.

I second Vladimir's "Prince of Nothing" recommendation. It's a great read just as pure fantasy fiction, but it also helped me to understand some of the concepts on this blog. Reading the "chimpanzee - village idiot - Einstein" line of posts, I found myself interpreting them by sticking Anasurimbor Kelhus at the right end of the spectrum and going from there.


What about Sherlock Holmes? Once you get past his obvious shortcomings, he's a pretty decent rationalist. Although he's shown as sometimes being cold and distant, he has complex feelings and preferences (for instance, when he lets a thief go free, because he judges the guy is too scared to do it again). He's not a caricature, such as Mr. Spock.

Well, at least that' my view on the character...


I think I'd consider the eponymous hero of Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant a rationalist character - at least in the first book, Lord Foul's Bane. Covenant is struck by a car and wakes up in a fantasy world. Accordingly, he refuses to believe it is real, and most of his decisions stem from that, including a rather horrible one that has far-reaching consequences throughout the first series. What compounds the whole situation is his debilitating leprosy. Donaldson created a very plausible depiction of a real person stranded in a fantastic world, and while Covenant is not entirely rational, he does live by a very strict methodology.

Isaac Asimov was also one for creating rational heroes, but much of his work is quite dated (and his female characters often leave much to be desired). Hari Seldon is a pleasantly rational character, though. The ultimate author of rational heroes is Ayn Rand, of course, but her characters are, as you say, about being rational.

I second the Gould (Jumper, etc.) and Bakker (Prince of Nothing) recommendations.

I personally feel that Lawrence Watt-Evans's books are a little too heavy on the cool, calculating protagonist. This sentence would not be out of place in his writing: "Tom noticed that the sword had gone through his stomach completely. However, clearly it had not hit anything immediately fatal, because he was still alive." Bleah.

What about Sherlock Holmes? Once you get past his obvious shortcomings, he's a pretty decent rationalist.
Not really. His 'logic' appears to be solid reasoning the same way a theatrical backdrop appears to be real scenery or a magician's slight of hand appears to be the performance of a mystical action: it has the semblance and nothing more.

Conan Doyle wrote in such a way as to convince people that Holmes was exercising reasoning powers, not to showcase examples of such reasoning. By the power of plot, Holmes was correct, but it doesn't follow that his stated reasoning was.

Conan Doyle wrote in such a way as to convince people that Holmes was exercising reasoning powers, not to showcase examples of such reasoning. By the power of plot, Holmes was correct, but it doesn't follow that his stated reasoning was.

My favorite example of this is the story where Watson was lost in thought, heard Holmes say something, and realized to his shock that Holmes had commented on a thought he was thinking. Holmes then explained that he'd watched how Watson had looked around the room and followed his gaze and expressions as the doctor looked at the different things. Knowing this and Watson's background, Holmes had figured out what thoughts those things had brought to Watson's mind, so that when Watson was thinking what a shame people dying in wars was, Holmes could say "yes, it is quite a shame" (or something along those lines, it's been years since I readthe story). Holmes proceeded to describe the exact train of thought that had been in Watson's mind every moment, based on what he'd been looking and what his expressions were like at that moment.

That was pretty clever writing, but... no. Just no.

That was pretty clever writing, but... no. Just no.

Really? You have never guessed the thoughts of someone you have spent practically every day with for years?

Also there's a lot of variation in how skilled people are at reading emotions. Also a lot of variation in how much attention people pay to small details, and how good a memory they have for them. I've heard anecdotes about Zen masters being able to do things similar to what Holmes did in the story—it's not too far-fetched to think that that level of training combined with one in a million innate ability combined with a decent amount of prior knowledge about a person would give one something like legilimency.

My bête noire in the fictional mistreatment of rationalism is that fictional rationalists refuse to update. The f*ing poltergeist (or whatever) will be wreaking all sorts of plainly observable havock -- objects floating in the air, demons materializing and vanishing before our eyes, people's faces melting off, etc., etc. -- and the "rationalist" will inevitably be standing there with a dumb look on his face, saying something like, "Well, there has to be some natural explanation..." Before he gets killed, of course.

Stupid, stupid minds!

Since I was a kid, disappointed that Agatha Christie mysteries were written so as not to be predictable in advance, I wanted to read a mystery series where at the end of each chapter, there's always enough clues to predict who the murderer is. But it's very, very hard after the 1st chapter, a little bit easier after the 2nd chapter, etc. That's good mystery writing, in my opinion. Not creating a solution in the last few paragraphs that's impossible to predict in advance, because its not grounded in any of the prior clues.

I read a couple of Agatha Christie mysteries, and it looked as though she believed that only one sort of person (sociopathic) would commit an interesting murder. That's probably reasonable, but if the solution is to look for the sort of character rather than pay attention to the details of the mystery, the books became not interesting for me.

Admittedly, I didn't update by reading a few more Christies, so I may be unfair.

My guess is that most readers don't care that much about the sort of rationality that Eliezer wants characters to have. Likewise, most people (even well-educated smart people) aren't much interested in having protracted, high-quality rational discourse. I don't think people can really be faulted for not having this interest.

"Maybe that's the main reason we don't see many realistic rationalists in fiction." Are you just referring to SF&F? Outside genre fiction, most stories don't involve the sort of technologies or fantasy elements that you discuss here. Instead, stories focus on mundane human relationships. There are characters who are sensitive and adroit in the way they interact with other people. They are thoughtful and successful in the way they conduct their lives. They achieve their goals and flourish due to prudent decision making and diligence. It seems to me that they are more "rational" in an important sense than statisticians who know all about Bayesian inference and selection effects but are completely unable to organize their lives in such a way that they flourish. (Such people know a lot about formal rationality while leading grossly unsatisfying lives---no good friends, bad relations with family, and jobs they hate).

Mysteries are partly about people figuring out crimes, and suspense fiction is partly about people making the right decision under stress. There's room for rational thought in both.

Anyone reading fiction based on forensics? How's the level of rationality there?


According to Norvig, Holmes is a Bayesian. Though I think it would be cool if there were a mystery story whose sleuth-protagonist made explicit use of stats and probability.

Worth Dying For by Lee Childs has Reacher (the main character, and extraordinarily competent) using Baysian reasoning-- and the other characters weren't. Unfortunately, I didn't keep close track of the details, and wasn't willing to reread the book to post about it.


I think it would be cool if there were a mystery story whose sleuth-protagonist made explicit use of stats and probability.

Have you ever tried to get a book published? It's all about numbers, and I don't mean the kind you mention. What do you suppose is the potential audience for such a book? As Bob Unwin points out, the readers of this blog are not in any way indicative of the general public.

Closing that tag.

Caledonian: Yeah, you're right about what you said, but Holmes still represents an i/ideal/i of rationality, just like Spock, but he fits the role much better.

Kaj Sotala: I don't recall that particular Holmes' story, but Poe's Auguste Dupin performs almost the same feat you described in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (and this kind of reasoning is mocked by Holmes in "A Study is Scarlet", BTW).

Hopefully Anonymous: if you'd like a mystery like that, I can recommend The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. The author explicitly writes it so you can solve it, and is even nice enough to give you the major hint and tell you to stop reading before his character solves the mystery.

To my everlasting shame, I couldn't solve it; this was my fault, and not the author's (as he indeed was playing it straight).

Why do you think these characters are trying to be "rationalists", even a misguided idea of "rationalists"? I don't watch Star Trek, but as far as I know Mr Spock never describes himself as a rationalist. He may use words like 'logical' and 'probability', but - unless there's something I don't know, which is very possible - he does not come out and say 'I am a rationalist', or claim to adhere to any of the principles that make up rationality. I'm similarly unaware of any character that explicitly sets out to be a rationalist, and repeatedly fails.

As far as I can tell, Mr Spock and his character type aren't portrayed wrongly as rationalist, they're portrayed correctly as introverted, stubbornly skeptic and/or overestimating their own intellect. Nothing more. When Spock says "Captain, we have a 94.92% chance of dying" when the chance of dying is 10%, I don't believe the scriptwriter's message is "probability is a crap science", I believe it's "Spock's understanding of probability is crap, and he vastly overestimates it".

On the flip side, I'd like to see less-rational characters in fantasy books. I can't believe in pseudo-medieval worlds where the main characters have no ethnic, racial, gender, or class prejudices; have no superstitions; and never make decisions for religious reasons.

(In some fantasy, notably Tolkien, ethnic and racial stereotypes are allowed - but in those fantasy worlds, they're true almost 100% of the time; and the author assumes that the reader, like the author, won't even think of them as prejudices.)

When Spock says "Captain, we have a 94.92% chance of dying" when the chance of dying is 10%, I don't believe the scriptwriter's message is "probability is a crap science", I believe it's "Spock's understanding of probability is crap, and he vastly overestimates it".

Oh, Spock's probabilities are probably quite accurate within the world of the story. The problem is that Spock doesn't realize that he's in a story, and by the power of plot, the ship and its primary crew are virtually never in real risk.

The other ships in the fleet aren't so lucky - and indeed they are frequently lost, sometimes in facing the threats that the Enterprise deal with later.

The Enterprise-D was guaranteed to survive the first Borg cube, for example, even though virtually every ship that attempted to stop its course was destroyed. It's the power of plot.

Eliezer: "Even in science fiction, the Rationalist character is rarely done right - bearing the same resemblance to a real rationalist, as the mad scientist genius inventor who designs a new nuclear reactor in a month, bears to real scientists and engineers."

Hey! Speak for yourself as an engineer! I'm dating one of these mad scientist geniuses...

Eliezer: "...battling monsters or falling in love or becoming a vampire, or whatever, not in being rational..."

What's irrational about battling monsters and falling in love?!?!?! I try to do this on a regular basis!

Eliezer: "It's this strange realism that charms me about Watt-Evans's work. It's not done as a schtick, but as faithfulness-to-reality. Real life doesn't run on perfect rails of dramatic necessity; neither is it random postmodern chaos. I admire an author who can be faithful to that, and still tell a story."

Ok- that does sound really cool. But why read fiction then? There's much wierder stuff going on the real world right now... You should watch the Venture Brothers... similar idea.

Thanks for the recs!!!!

Seconding Phil Goetz here. I might even read fantasy like that. Actually, Tale of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin probably counts, and I do read it.


One of A Song Of Ice And Fire's main narrative strengths is that it accurately portrays the effects of characters making stupid decisions.

Caledonian--You forget that in the first encounter with the Borg, they were saved by a shameless deus ex, in which an established character (Q) was made to do openly what writers normally do by contrivance. Don't know whether it's good writing, but it's not as bad as some of the "three thousand, seven hundred and twenty to one!" successes that appear in fiction.

That's a very fair point, The Uncredible Hallq. But keep in mind that the contact with the Borg was a deux ex in itself. Neither side would have known of the other for centuries without Q's interference.

The Battle of Wolf 359 demonstrated what the odds of surviving a Borg incursion actually were, if you tried to stand in their way. The Enterprise survived only because the ship was crippled in its attempt to destroy the cube, and the Borg didn't perceive them as enough of a threat to be worth the opportunity cost.

I wonder to what degree the bad Hollywood logical genius stereotype has superimposed itself over the public perception of autism allowing junk science like Simon Baron Cohen's 'extreme systematizer' theory and impeding actual understanding of autism.

If the guy in Fleep was as rational for 2 years as he was for 2 days he wouldn't have ended up trapped in the phone booth

nzarfvn pyrnerq uvf oenva ohtf?

This is tangential but does anyone know of profound, joyful or excited poets who write about rationalism or related topics like mathematics, physics, evolution, etc. I am basically looking for uplifting, witty, and positive takes on a world free of the supernatural.

Sorry to resurrect a dead thread.

Jennifer Michael Hecht is a joyful, rationalist poet.

Skyler: Here is the classic answer.

Maybe some stuff from the French Revolution?

Mark Twain and Voltaire are literary rationalists of a high order but not poets.

For young children, early seasons of Scooby Doo might be a good instance of competent rationalist propaganda.

Skylar- why not ask Vassar for his collection?

Edmund in Lear!

Well. I finally got around to reading The Unwilling Warlord, and I must say that, despite the world of Ethshar being mildly interesting, the book is disappointment. It builds up nice and well in the first 2/3 of the book, but in the last 1/3, when you expect it to unfold and flourish in some interesting, surprising, revealing manner, Watt-Evans instead decides to pursue the lamest, boringest plot possible, all the while insulting the reader's intelligence.

For the last 1/3 of the book, Watt-Evans attempts to make the eventual reasons for Vond's undoing a "mystery". He suggests that Sterren knows the answer, but the reader is not told what it is. When the end finally arrives, it is a disapointing anti-climax as Watt-Evans chooses the most non-eventful possible outcome that has been blatantly obvious all the while.

He employs an exceedingly lame plot device where Vond is so stupid he just doesn't see it coming. The author neither takes the opportunity to explain what the Calling is, nor does he have Sterren take Vond down in a more interesting manner, such as having Sterren go to the Towers of Lumeth and turning them off, or something.

Yes, the writing has some positive traits such as Eliezer described, but overall it's much lamer and more amateurish than I expected. Given the recommendation, I would have expected this to be much better fiction than it turns out it is.

I have the benefit of having read other books in the series before reading The Unwilling Warlord, but even in Warlord Watt-Evans makes the reason for Vond's undoing explicit early on (the time when Sterren queries Vond about "nightmare's" when hiring him). If you missed this, you skimmed too much or just plain forgot it. The only "mystery" about Vond succumbing to it is that Vond's too high on his new-found power to put two and two together.

There're actually about 9 paragraphs towards the middle of chapter 15 (less than half way through the book) that make very explicit exactly what is happening to Vond in the last 1/3 of the novel. And this further on makes it even more clear: "There was one other possibility, one that he had seen almost immediately as the inevitable solution. He considered it as he opened the barracks door. It was a solution that would take care of itself, eventually, but which he could either hurry or hinder. Vond thought he was free of the Calling, but if Sterren understood the situation correctly, Vond was missing a vital point."

Why would Sterren waste time and risk himself by trying to shut off the Lumeth power source (when he isn't actually sure it's the Towers anyway) when he knows how things are going to work out, and wouldn't have a clue on how to shut off the Towers?

The explanation for the Calling takes place over half a dozen books later, in the current serial on the ethshar website. The simple fact is that no one present in Warlord knows what the Calling actually is, and Watt-Evans isn't about to act the omniscient narrator when his actual narrator is Sterren.

You might find his more mainstream fantasy more to your taste (ie. The Obsidian Chronicles).

Makes me think of this webcomic about a gamer in our world hwo gets summoned to a fantasy board-game world with wierd laws of physics, when someone in that world tries to summon the "ultimate warlord"...


There's a webcomic with exactly this plot. Were you referring to it? (relevant page:

(edit: either you edited your comment or I am going crazy)

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Erfworld came up earlier as a worthy topic of discussion and comparison to MoR (re: exploiting fantasy rules). Now that I'm caught up, I would have to amend my favorable comments there: Erfworld was good up until the Crowning Awesome of the volcano. Since then, it has been complete crap - abandoned its metafictional pretensions, gone into incredibly boring arcs, etc.

I usually commit the sunk cost hard with fiction series (Wheel of Time comes to mind), but the past year or so of Erfworld has been dull enough that I'm close to just unsubscribing.

EDIT: you know what, now that I've explicitly labeled it a sunk cost, I've realized it really is. I'm putting a 6-month reminder on my calendar, and if the comic doesn't shape up before then, I'm unsubscribing. I probably will - past is prologue.

EDIT2: I also put in a reminder for Bad Machinery which had a similar problem. The reminder fired today (23 June 2012) and on reflection, the last selkie arc wasn't good enough to justify future subscription, so I have unsubscribed.

I agree, they have completly lost their steam lately. Fun while it lasted though!

As predicted, I unsubscribed. The mildly-Asian arc did not salvage anything for me.

It's still setting the stage for what's to follow. Might be good when it's done. I hope so.

I wouldn't say complete crap but the second arc (book 2) does have a bit of Wheel of Time syndrome. There are way too many characters and the plot slows to a crawl. By installment 80 the main character has worked out a plan to get to the big battle by jumping through a couple of portals. I thought this sounded great. Oh boy, I can't wait for this to happen. But wait I did. This bogged down in long, dull negotiations with a bunch of boring secondary characters we have no reason to care about. 67 installments later the main character comments appositely:

My "brilliance" can't get me through a goddamned door today.

Perhaps the authors had realized how frustrating this was at that point - but there were still to be 13 more installments before our guy actually gets through that goddamned door.

Still. There is a lot of good character development in there and many excellent (if plot-slowing) vignettes about duty, honor, sacrifice, loyalty and so on. I like that stuff enough to read on. But if you were in it for the plot and the metafiction, I can see how it wouldn't be worth your while to read on.