mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus by Eliezer Yudkowsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ambivalence gets a bum rap. Who would ever want to read a book that simultaneously delights and frustrates a reader to no end? When the text continually drops the ball on a simple matter and the mistake is repeated over and over again throughout the text, to the extent that this core mistake permeates the text in a way that can never be corrected by an editor, how could it ever be that the other content could delight enough to make up for this seemingly fatal deficiency?
I’m ambivalent about mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus. The characters all just care about sex too much. It's distracting. It's annoying. It makes it very difficult for me to place myself in the story seamlessly. But, unbelievably, the core conceit of a subpar dath ilani being isekaied into the Pathfinder universe where the citizenry literally are lawful evil supporters of hell itself and the dath ilani has yet to realize that evil is evil has got to be the most fascinating and exciting story hook I've come across since I was a teenager and wasn't already jaded to the classical canon.
Let me take a step back to explain, because if you're new to all of this, then the aim of this essay is to get you to read this story. Some very light spoilers follow, but honestly they are so light that I expect no one reading them to be bothered by them (the few who would be bothered by the most minimal of spoilers will stop reading here of their own accord).
First: Pathfinder is a role playing game universe with its own unique set of rules for magic, character alignment, governments, and gods. You usually see people playing an RPG in this setting; it's an alternative to the much better known Dungeons & Dragons universe. You don't need to be familiar with Pathfinder to get into this story, even though it's set in the Pathfinder universe. It's sufficient to be aware of general tropes regarding devils that contract for your soul and to realize that in Pathfinder, some governments are themselves lawful evil and enforce all their citizens to contract with devils for their souls. If you don't know Pathfinder, another basic fact you'll need is that demons are distinct from devils. Demons are chaotic evil fiends from the Abyss that exhibit raw fighting strength, while devils are non-chaotic evil contract-lovers who delight in taking unfair advantage of those who dare to sell their soul.
Second, dath ilan is an invention of Elizer Yudkowsky, one of the authors of mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus. Yudkowsky is significant in the rationality movement and has spent a lot of time writing tracts that help to make people think better about various things. dath ilan started out as an April Fools joke, when Yudkowsky started pretending that he was himself a citizen of dath ilan that was isekaied into our world and has been trying ever since to teach us Earthlings the ways of dath ilan. In dath ilan, the sanity waterline is much higher than on Earth. People cooperate there in ways that people here cannot, merely because everyone is much more rational along the dimensions that Yudkowsky cares about. It's a fascinating world, even if I don't personally agree that such a world would look the way that Yudkowsky portrays it. Their tech level is approximately a little beneath our own, mostly because the responsible adults of dath ilan deliberately slowed down (or stopped?) all technological progress along a dimension that will be obvious if you know any of Yudkowsky's other works, but which I won't name here as I expect it to be a further plot point in the text. If you know nothing of Yudkowsky and are going into this blind, the most important thing to know about dath ilan is that they're supposed to be the best that humans can be. Stuff just works there. Schools teach learning, businesses exist to better organize making goods available, politicians do the right thing, etc. It's not heaven — they're all still baseline humans — but they are much smarter than us and they work together to do society correctly.
Third, isekai is a genre where someone from world A suddenly finds themselves in world B. The genre started as a way to take someone from our world and put them in a fantasy world so that we can identify with the straight man and it is justified in-story why we stop to pay attention to details that people from world B wouldn't find interesting. But in mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus, this is turned on its head because we are unfamiliar with both world A and world B: Keltham (the dath ilani) is transported into the Pathfinder universe, where the lawful evil residents of Cheliax immediately start deceiving Keltham for reasons that I won't spoil here. Keltham is a teenager; he's smart, as all dath ilani are, but he's not the shining standard example you might expect from a place like dath ilan; Keltham is a bit weird by his culture's standards.
The resulting story is amazing. So many stories out there fail in my eyes because they insist on having characters hold the idiot ball, or because the characters make dumb decisions that the audience would never make. (It's the trope of a group in a scary mansion at night deciding to split up, but writ large: charatcers overlook obvious clues or make other choices that they definitely would not take if they were sufficiently rational.) mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus doesn't make this mistake. Keltham acts rationally. The adults of Cheliax act as they should, given their knowledge and desires. The story makes sense, and that's a rare treat among most stories told on Earth. mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus is a prime example of rational fiction, a genre that first started being considered a genre of its own in part due to Yudkowsky's Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, one of the best fanfictions ever written. If you end up liking mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus, you'll likely enjoy other rational fiction works; alternatively, if you find yourselves liking shorter ratfics, you'll also likely find this text worth the read.
But, as the opening of this review points out, I don't have nothing but praise for this book. Several parts make me feel strongly ambivalent.
mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus is a glowfic. It's written by two authors, each of whom writes dialogue and setting for the portion that they're responsible for. The text itself is a series of forum posts, where each post is written by one of the authors. It's not clear if they played it straight, but hypothetically, each other doesn't always know in advance what the other author is necessarily going for. In some glowfics, this means you get to see a succession of "yes and" situations, but in this specific glowfic style, you're more likely to see one author putting forth a general idea and the other one pushing back and finding edge cases that may trip them up. Does this make for good writing? Maybe, but not here. That's why I suspect that these two glowfic writers are more in concert than they may at first appear, since it's resulting in writing that more closely corresponds to what a single author may have written on their own. Parts of this feel stumbly where it needn't if this hadn't been a glowfic. I'm especially unhappy with the forum post format, which artificially creates issues not only with mathematical notation but also doesn't allow for graceful chapter headings or appropriate white space.
The strongest thing that puts me off the story, however, is the continued focus on sex. Yes, I get that Keltham is a teenager, and that a lawful evil society like Cheliax would use sex to nefarious ends. But the BDSM stuff is really pushed as a major part of the storyline in what feels like the cringiest thing I've ever started and then continued to read. The Erogamer, which is famously full of sex and yet nevertheless tells a deep story you won't expect (even having given this disclaimer, it will still be unexpected), does a legit better job of making the sex feel important-to-the-story than mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus does. Despite being asexual myself, I really enjoyed The Erogamer, and, in a similar way, I'm really enjoying mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus. But the former feels like the sex stuff is earned, while the latter feels like the authors just really wanted their rational story about math and rationality to also have a bunch of sex in it. I cannot tell you how much this turns me off. When I say I'm ambivalent about this, I don't mean that the sex part is bad but I recommend the story anyway because of its good qualities. No, what I mean is that the sex thing is so bad that I actively want to warn people away from reading this trash. Yet, at the same time, the rest of it is so good that I need others to experience this treasure. That's what I mean by my being ambivalent.
But, as I mentioned, I am asexual. Maybe other people just won't mind this level of BDSM in their stories. I tend to cringe when I see the two leads in a movie kiss (I keep hoping they're just friends!), and yet movie-makers keep using this trope over and over again, so maybe the rest of society just tolerates this kind of thing without cringing in the way I do. Maybe you'll enjoy it. But I remain ambivalent.
Sex isn't the only issue, however. The math is somewhat jumbled; the reader, if they are math literate, will be able to follow only with difficulty because dath ilan uses a different way of teaching and talking about math; the math illiterate will do no better than to skim over these parts. Worse, the format lends itself poorly to mathematical notation: at some points, the authors literally use a series of dashes to create a vinculum (dividing line in a fraction). The html doesn't wrap correctly in some browsers, so this makes the math appear amateurish. Given that I think at least one author really does intend for readers to learn this stuff, I'm guessing this doesn't have any aspect of authorial intent, and if the authors knew how to allow LaTeX to appear, they might use that instead. (I'm only partially sure because the authors insist upon making dath ilan math use different notation and go about describing mathematical relationships in an entirely different way.)
Worse, the author seems to want to teach the reader, even if the reader just wants to enjoy the story. This creates a tension where the author spends way more time on explaining a concept than any other author realistically would, and it may cause some readers to lose interest for a dozen forum posts at a time. I get that the point of the story is to semi-secretly increase the sanity waterline. But it feels like playing an edutainment game at times. Maybe if the teaching sections were shorter, or less dense, then you could stealthily teach while the reader is focused on enjoying the story. But, as written, it's like a story that occasionally takes breaks in order to go in depth and teach a lesson on rationality. Unfortunately, this isn't fixable by editing out the teaching parts, because the teaching parts are integral to the story itself. Fascinatingly, as you learn each lesson, you are supposed to be able to better understand what Keltham was doing in previous parts of the story. In a way, this is like an M. Night Shyamalan twist where when you see the twist at the end, you look back at the beginning and see it in a new light — except the twist is continuous: as you learn more ratonality, you're better able to appreciate how Keltham has been experiencing the situation the entire time, since he's looking at everything with a rational eye.
So even though the teaching parts feel stilted and break up the cadence of the story in unflattering ways, they're nevertheless part of what makes this text great. (Meanwhile, the sex stuff could be removed almost entirely and I suspect the story would be better for it.)
The story itself is ongoing, but I'm a writing a review now anyway because I'm already certain of the five star rating I'm going to give it. You may wonder why a book I'm ambivalent about is getting a perfect rating, but, at the meta level, I think that this is entirely appropriate. I genuinely cringe at sex stuff in this book even when I didn't cringe at more extreme sex stuff in The Erogamer. I actively dislike the sex parts so much that I want to warn people away from reading. I also actively like the other parts so much that I need others to read this. On the meta level I want others to experience this fascinating dissonance, which, when combined with the good object level parts, results in my five star rating.
You can read mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus on glowfic.com. You can learn more about dath ilan on LessWrong, including links to previous stories about dath ilan people isekaied into various locales. If you decide to read this despite never having heard of Yudkowsky or rational fiction before, and you like it, be sure to look up other rational fiction works. Oh, and Eliezer, if you're reading this: good god, man, please stop weaving this much unnecessary sex into your plotlines. It's one thing to write sex into a story about being corrupted by the internet. But when you take what may be the best plot hook of all time (dath ilani isekaied to nation of lawful evil people intent on corrupting them) and then stuff your sex fantasies in there, it ruins what could have been so much better. I'll take it anyway, because it's damn good, and maybe there's no incentive to do otherwise since most of your intended readers won't be asexual like me, but good god that's a lot of sex and masochism for a story supposedly about rationality. Granted, the lawful evil stuff justifies the inclusion of masochism, but not the sex in the first place, no matter how horny a teenage dath ilani might be.
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