01 June, 2020

Review: Nyssa in the Realm of Possibility

Nyssa in the Realm of PossibilityNyssa in the Realm of Possibility by Alicorn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You might at first expect that a rational retelling of Norton Justen's The Phantom Tollbooth would require at least that the reader be familiar with the source material. But just such an unwarranted assumption is exactly the kind of thing that this fantasy tale may cause you to reconsider.

Nyssa is a young girl who doesn't quite grasp what knowledge truly is, but who is already at the level of being able to guess her teachers' passwords. By walking through a portal into the Realm of Possibility, she goes on an adventure Wonderland-style that takes her on a journey full of references and lessons common in the rationality community. Whether it's the robin who blocks her hansom to lecture on why she's really doing what she's doing, or her half-hour friend Pomodoro who yells with a voice like an alarm bell whenever she wastes too much time, there's always something around the corner that will hearken back to the kinds of things that rationalists might find generally amusing.

Yet this is not just a case of the author making a reference-laden story that doesn't actually speak to the plot. You won't find Cory Doctorow-style references that serve just to make the reader feel good if they get the hidden reference. Yet you also won't find deep conceptually important references in the style of James Joyce that are the actual story behind the surface level text. Instead, the references that Alicorn uses in Nyssa in the Realm of Possibility are the story itself. Nyssa learns to like real learning through seeing the examples of each reference used in the story themselves. It's not just a reference to Flow; the Flow literally propels her forward. It's not just a reference to akrasia; the demon Akrasia literally shows her power by making Nyssa overcome her in the story. This is a story full of references, yes, but the references are a part of the story itself, and thus integral to the plot.

I was enamored by Nyssa in the Realm of Possibility, even though I had never read nor even heard of The Phantom Tollbooth before reading. Alicorn has done an exemplary job of bringing the reader into the world she created without needing any foreknowledge of the source text nor even (I think) the rationality concepts that she puts on display throughout the story.

I would heartily recommend this relatively short story to both children and adults, so long as they are receptive to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland-style lessons on how (and why) we might think better. This is not the best "go learning!" book I've read (that title still remains with Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity), but it is definitely within the top few. Thank you, Alicorn, for writing such an entertaining and enlightening short story.

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