How Much of a Ratfic is Dr. Stone?
After my last, pretty dense and esoteric, post, I thought it would be a nice time to quickly write up a non-dense… still pretty esoteric post, to answer a question that has been on my mind for a couple months. Is Dr. Stone a ratfic? Some brief background: I managed to go all four years at RIT watching remarkably little anime, but I finally decided to start clearing my list of recommended anime starting a little under a year ago. I got a job at a bookstore where manga was a major seller, and while a manga habit is expensive to feed, it got me more curious to try some more anime at least, some of which I regularly stocked the mangas of.
Around this time I also finally read some rationalist fiction. This was mainly because I discovered the Methods of Rationality podcast that does full readings of some of them, with multiple voice actors (I highly recommend it), and have consequently listened to large, famous rationalist fanfictions like the sizable The Metropolitan Man and the gargantuan Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR) over the course of my commutes to and from work. I think there is some ambiguity in what qualifies as rationalist fiction, in my case this is in no small part because I am not really an expert on it, but it is also such a small, niche thing, that the normal definition that connects a piece of fiction back to the specific scene of rationalist fanfiction just isn’t very satisfying. And yet it is clearly centrally defined through the works of this scene.
One of the series on the Methods of Rationality podcast is an analysis show hosted by someone familiar with the rationalist fiction scene, Steven Zuber, and an outsider encountering it for the first time, Brian Deacon. In the intro-episode to the The Metropolitan Man analysis episodes, Zuber pointed out an apparent distinction between “rationalist fiction” (fiction designed in part to teach specific rationality methods, with HPMOR being an example) and “rational fiction” (fiction about similar tropes and characters, discussing similar issues, but a larger category also including works without the same explicit discussion of heuristics/biases, with The Metropolitan Man being an example leaning more in that direction). Very little outside of the rationalist scene would qualify as “rationalist fiction” by these definitions, but “rational fiction” seems like it could be extended to works that don’t have much direct connection to the rationalist scene. Zuber for instance gives the book The Martian as an example of something that might qualify as rational fiction (which I will shorten to “ratfic” from here on out, as rational fiction is the broader category including rationalist fiction, and I have seen ratfic used for both).
Among works of anime, Death Note seems to have a special place as well, though I have seen no one suggest it is ratfic itself. Gwern has written about it more than once, one of my RIT EA friends wrote an essay on it a little while back as well, Eliezer Yudkowsky has even mentioned its connection with the finale of HPMOR. It’s not too hard to see why, it is a show about paranoid clever people weaponizing their cleverness against each other in ways that importantly influence the plot. And as a show, it works. One can see more than a little Kira in Quirrell and Lex, and not just because they are scary. It is possible that Death Note would qualify is ratfic adjacent, but interestingly I have not seen any discussion by comparison (though I have not really looked for it) of Dr. Stone, an anime with much more superficial connection to ratfic, and probably a similar amount of deeper connection (though of a very different sort) everything considered. There are also some differences, but on the whole Dr. Stone seems to me to have similar claim to being ratficish as The Martian or Death Note.
Also, a disclaimer, this post is solely about the anime. I have read none of the manga, and don’t really know any of the background of it. Take as a general disclaimer that this piece is mostly a way for me to rant a bit about a fun show and dust of my English MA before my new program starts. I am at best a novice in both ratfic and anime, and didn’t do a ton of background research for this.
This post is also stuffed with spoilers, both for Dr. Stone, and HPMOR, and occasionally The Metropolitan Man.
Some of the subject matter comparison between Dr. Stone and rational fiction is obvious, but not terribly unique. The main character of Dr. Stone, Senku, is very very smart. When he is unpetrified and plunged into a less scientifically advanced world (Ishigami village), he slowly gains a following because of his knowledge, and advances science in this world from scratch. This should sound familiar because it has a good deal in common with the plot of HPMOR, but it should also sound familiar because it is a highly memeable wish-fulfillment trope in general.
Despite this not being super unique, it is a pretty helpful set up for some of the less superficial tropes that make Dr. Stone ratficy. It also sets up some of the more superficial ratficy elements. Most noticeably it becomes a pretty early staple of the show to demonstrate in meticulous detail how to make different technologies and materials from stone age tech. Despite some overly convenient moments, the show’s (or more likely manga’s) creators clearly did their homework, and represented its technology with a high degree of accuracy. This meant not papering over the infrastructure/scale/rarity/sensitivity challenges involved in making each advancement possible. There are important plot-points anchored to all these types of problems. Senku needs to entice more people to work with him when demanding projects like heating iron or running a manual generator come up. At one point he realizes he needs tungsten to make a successful vacuum tube filament, and despairs that it will be impossible to get the needed materials (before getting lucky). He has to make glass before he is able to work with certain corrosive chemicals. This all feels more similar to The Martian than the classic ratfic I’ve read, but it is definitely not unfamiliar.
There are at least two points in the second season when the subject matter gets even closer to rationalist ideas. In one case, Senku is forced to perform a Fermi estimate in order to fool another character. This is generally not how Senku operates, his attitude towards statistics is extremely irreverent, and most of the time that he is giving some figure (unless there is a plot reason this figure needs to be precise), he flippantly says “ten billion” instead. He is hardly making decisions based on careful Bayesian analysis as a rule, or at least not showing his work. Indeed, when the Fermi estimate becomes necessary, it does not feel so much like it is playing the role of showing an important part of Senku’s general reasoning process, but rather as a brief mention to teach the audience about how Fermi estimates work, and their surprising possible power. Still, even this much recognition for practical applications of Fermi estimates is rare, so Dr. Stone should earn some ratfic points for showing this, if only superficial ones.
The other time Dr. Stone scores rationalist specific points in the second season is more plot-relevant, Senku works to save a dying character by putting him under a form of cryonics. When the show’s main villain up to this point, Tsukasa, is fatally wounded by a former ally, Senku decides to preserve his body in hopes of curing him. Cryonics is controversial, but while I think there are solid arguments against doing it in the real world, the case in defense of it is, I think, surprisingly strong, and it is a definite common interest of rationalists. What Senku does is not the standard form of cryonics in the real world, but it is a similar idea. The standard form of cryonics involves vitrifying a person’s body or head shortly after legal death, and then freezing it. The idea of this process is highly speculative, based on the impression that in the future it will likely be possible to resurrect people with either nanotechnology or full brain emulations, and in order for this to be possible, as many details as possible about someone’s brain structure should be preserved. Senku instead freezes Tsukasa to death (seriously, the show is quite explicit that Senku is killing him), in the hopes that he will eventually be able to replicate the “petrification” process that froze everyone in the world for thousands of years and which, when undone, can repair a great deal of physical damage.
Some specifics are quite different (preservation in real world cryonics is much less damaging than the Dr. Stone version, but the Dr. Stone version is premised on a much less speculative cure), but the premise is similar enough that what Senku does is clearly recognizable as cryonics. Arguably the disanalogy between Dr Stone’s cryonics, and real world cryonics is not dramatically different from the level of disanalogy between the cryonics Harry puts Hermione under in HPMOR, and real world cryonics. There is some possible cure on the horizon, but by the time it arrives, Tsukasa will be both dead and decomposed beyond its help. The tradeoff in damaging his body more now is that it will be far far less damaged by the time the cure arrives than it would be otherwise, and will give him his best chance of being in a state that can be repaired with an amazing enough intervention. The show is currently not airing, so Tsukasa being frozen is about the last thing that happened in it. It would not surprise me if there is more relevant information at this point in the manga.
Below all of this technophilia and cameos from some more idiosyncratic rationalist interests, is Dr. Stone really a story about rationalism? The truth is, some ratfic involves accurate science talk, but just about all of it involves good planning. One of the things that differentiates rational fiction from very didactic hard sci fi is that characters don’t just build existing technologies, they innovate and problem solve, sometimes in very weird or interesting ways. This is one reason Death Note has a certain allure to rationalists, it involves a ton of paranoid clever plans. Even The Martian, which undoubtedly falls into the “very didactic hard sci fi” bucket as well, clearly involves innovative planning around problems. I will admit, this is a way in which Dr. Stone regularly falls short.
The key conflict of the show is the upcoming confrontation between the Tsukasa empire and Ishigami village (sometimes “the kingdom of strength” versus “the kingdom of science”). Senku spends Ishigami village’s whole preparation time on building cell phones, which requires the work of the entire village. This is… crazy? The point this is supposedly drawing on is the importance of information warfare in modern combat, which is perhaps a valuable point about war in general, but it really isn’t clear that the ultimate plan was good enough to justify using this as pretty much the entire focus of the available time. Later, during the second season, the characters take much much less time on building a freaking tank. There are some cool weapons that the villagers bring to the final battle like katanas and a sound canon, but during the time it took to make two cell phones, plausibly all or most of the kingdom of science could have been equipped with tanks, all of which could have been made more sophisticated (less vulnerable to anti-vehicle traps with proper treads, probably able to fire more than once if tweaked in the right ways).
Some of the use of the cell phone was also bizarre, for instance there was a hair-brained plot in the second season to convert members of the Tsukasa empire to the Ishigami side one by one by imitating an American singer, and pretending America had fully recovered from the world’s petrification. This, weirdly enough, works a little bit, but then the plan gets exposed in the middle of the final battle, and basically there are no consequences.
I don’t want to trash on the planning aspects of Dr. Stone too much, these plots really don’t look great to me, but perhaps some of them are better than I give them credit for. Also, as I’ve mentioned, there is more realistic planning depicted when it comes to making technology and materials that will help the kingdom of science. The show is heavily focused on plots of the following form: there is some problem, Senku announces that they are going to build some crazy thing that sounds impossible in the stone age, everyone starts work on it, and some parts are surprisingly hard and others surprisingly easy. Still, the best planning elements of it are heavily focused on technology rather than general problem solving skills. The reason for things like the cell phone seem to have less to do with actual usefulness than just the coolness of showing how to build a cell phone with primitive technology. Rational fiction, however, is not just about the methods of rationality. In my experience, it is often at its best when it deals in some way with themes relevant to real-world discussions. When those themes are more rationalist relevant, it seems appropriate to consider a work closer to ratfic.
The Metropolitan Man, for instance, often feels like it is less about Superman, and more about AGI and Effective Altruism. Lex’s motives for destroying Superman are partially selfish, but his arguments about the impossibility of controlling him or stopping him if he one day stops being perfectly aligned with innocent human goals are quite familiar. Lex estimates the extinction risk from Superman, and finds it astoundingly high compared to the default1. Meanwhile, others argue for the incredible potential Superman has if he were to try harder to figure out his ideal relationship with humans, how to do the most good rather than just stopping some crime. And yet it is not at all clear what the fair, non-horrible way to deploy power like his is other than what he is actually doing – I have actually used this analogy before in discussions about AGI governance problems. Calling one possibility, better than the similarly obvious solutions but still clearly undesirable in important ways, the “Superman” model, in which the AGI doesn’t do governing, or responding to the wishes of any specific user, but mostly goes around occasionally fixing hard, fairly uncontroversial problems unilaterally.
Conversations about how Superman uses his power also become obviously relevant to Effective Altruism in some places, beyond just characters proposing ways he could use his power more effectively. In one particularly on-the-nose scene, Lois Lane confronts Superman about working at the Daily Planet and pretending to be Clark Kent for hours a day, while knowing about preventable deaths and suffering he could be going around fixing during this time. He responds by going full “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” on her, talking about how other people regularly do similarly trivial things for their comfort when they could be providing life-saving aid.
HPMOR is harder to isolate the specific themes of, because it is so long and there are so many, but at least one obvious arc one could find seems to relate to the relationship between rationalists and neoreactionaries. Although Yudkowsky has denied that Quirrell is based on neoreactionary thought, he is pretty clearly a reactionary in important ways, and so is Malfoy. Meanwhile, Harry, a clear stand-in for rationalists, spends a great deal of the book being tempted into a much more cynical frame of mind by Quirrell, as he in turn works to tempt Malfoy towards a humanistic enlightenment liberalism. Hermione meanwhile is trying to drag Harry away from the whole thing, though it is less clear what she is supposed to represent in this struggle, except perhaps a greater deal of maturity and empathy than Harry has in general2.
I don’t have enough background knowledge to say for sure, but it seems unlikely that Dr. Stone’s creator, Riichiro Inagaki, is involved in the rationalist community, so expecting something as explicitly relevant to its internal interests as the themes of the Metropolitan Man or HPMOR is unrealistic. That said, the key thematic conflicts of the show seem to represent the interests and attitudes of many rationalists in its own way.
Tsukasa, the main villain, represents the “kingdom of strength” to match Senku’s kingdom of science, but these labels don’t do much to spell out the guiding ideologies of either group, especially Tsukasa’s. Tsukasa gained power to begin with because he was strong, and his only real weapon against the scientific advancements Senku facilitates is unpetrifying an army of physically talented people (not just strong), but this has little to do with what he is actually trying to accomplish. Tsukasa, above all else, is against the modern world, and sees the stone apocalypse as a chance to start over. In particular, he sees the old world as owned by corrupt, greedy old people, who use technology to maintain dominance and private ownership over everything, while in the new world the spoils of the earth can be shared. If I were to spell the ideas out in more coherent terms, it bears a strong resemblance to a sort of left-primitivism.
This is not quite enough to understand the full scope of Tsukasa’s ideas however, especially after he calls a truce with Senku, he makes it clear that his worldview is much darker than this. He not only sees technology as ultimately destructive, but the population as unsustainable. Throughout the show up to this point, he would regularly destroy the petrified bodies of people he thought were old and greedy, and would only damage the prospects of a reformed society. After he was defeated, it was made clear that these killings were not motivated by a righteous, revolutionary fervor, but from a sense of inevitability. He did not think it would be possible to create a sustainable, good society with the population of the old world, and undertook the painful task of picking who got to be revived, and who had to go.
In a way this feels like a classic idealistic villain view, like a more spelled out Thanos, but Senku does not just represent the sympathetic but reasonably moderate status quo of many plots like this, nor is he quite Tsukasa’s opposite. It is possible to view Tsukasa as representing the extremes of leftism or consequentialism, but Senku does not buy it. The first time Tsukasa talks to Senku and tries to persuade him of his point of view, Senku is unsurprised and utterly unmoved. There is no indication throughout Dr. Stone that Senku is either a right-winger or a deontologist, his lack of sympathy has nothing to do with strong ideological breaks with Tsukasa or a view of his goals as too extreme.
Senku’s ideology can probably best be summarized as: science is the way that society rejects the need to compromise, and when you face a dilemma, it matters much more to spend your effort thinking of ways to stop it from being a true dilemma than to spend your effort thinking of what horrible sacrifice is the least bad one to make. In one flashback, one of Senku’s friends poses the dilemma of whether you would save yourself, your friend, or your lover if you had to pick. Senku doesn’t even dignify the hypothetical with a response, saying that he would just find a way to save everyone, and that the book the dilemma was in belongs in the trash. Tsukasa doesn’t represent a certain ideological goal any more than Senku, and it is not clear that their values are dramatically different. Tsukasa represents an approach that views the world in terms of scarcity, and progress in terms of dividing this scarcity in the most fair and sustainable ways, while Senku represents an approach that makes progress by rejecting scarcity more and more altogether.
This is particularly clear when looking at Senku’s approach to lives. Persistently, his ideology is framed as “save everyone”. In fact, at one point when he appears to sacrifice his life to save his friends, they become sure he is actually alive after remembering posing the previously mentioned dilemma to him in the past. He also insists on saving everyone who was petrified eventually, one of the first points of conflict between him and Tsukasa. He ALSO insists on trying to save all of the petrified people Tsukasa destroyed, to the extent that he has his followers find all of the broken fragments of these people to meticulously put back together in the hopes they will still be possible to revive. On his deathbed, Tsukasa helps in this project by telling Senku where all of the people he destroyed are. Again, we can see the ultimate similarity between his values and Senku’s. He is so torn up by the destruction he sees as necessary, that he couldn’t forget a single petrified person he destroyed. And then of course, there is the insistence Senku has on saving Tsukasa at any cost as well, by putting him under the aforementioned cryonic preservation. It is easy to see some of Harry from HPMOR, and his uncompromising attitude towards death, in Senku.
If it was just this difference in attitudes towards compromise that defined the themes however, Dr. Stone might not be all that noteworthy, saving everyone is not exactly an unpopular hero-trait in fiction (though I still think few take it quite as far as this). It is the connection to science that makes this feel like more than a simple slogan-deep worldview. Although the observant viewer will see saving everyone as crucial to Senku’s worldview, even the very least observant viewer will notice the centrality of science to his worldview. It is… kind of his whole thing. Science has a pretty decent track-record of helping fix scarcity and compromise, but it is a clear double-edged sword in some cases. There are some contexts however, such as medicine, where it has so far been pretty much exclusively a tremendous benefit. There may be more focus on the awesomeness of building cell phones and tanks and lightbulbs in the stone age, but medical technology not only shows up, but is unusually relevant to key points in the movement of the plot.
The earliest example of this came in the first episode, with the development of a cure for petrification. This was essential to the further development of the overarching plot, not just because it introduced key characters like Tsukasa, but because it made the possibility of resuscitating most of the old world’s people real, and an important location for the conflict of the story. After that, Senku makes his first major allies, and eventually wins the support of Ishigami village as a whole, through his attempt to make antibiotics to cure the village priestess. Although many characters were lured in earlier through modern foods Senku made like ramen and cola, the project that built Senku’s relationship with the Ishigami villagers and finally won over its original king was making antibiotics. You could even say this was the technology that won Senku his “kingdom of science”. Finally, the show has left off with Senku’s project to cure Tsukasa by replicating the petrification process – in fact in the spirit of scientific advancement Senku often embodies, he immediately noted petrification could be applied elsewhere such as food preservation, if they find a way to control it. There are more minor moments that also feel significant. For example Senku develops glasses for some villagers who need them, a reminder that the romance of a low tech society doesn’t just leave behind those who die from preventable disease, but those who have to live with otherwise easily fixable biological disadvantages. 3
The plot of Dr. Stone seems very much like a dramatization of the eternal struggle between the wizards and the prophets of the world. I have not read the book, but I have read this review, which describes the two schools of thought as:
“Roughly speaking, Wizards want continual growth in human numbers and quality of life, and to use science and technology to get there: think Gene Roddenbury’s wildest dreams, full of replicators and quantum flux-harnessing doodads that untether us from our eons-long project of survival on limited resources and allow us to expand limitlessly. ‘Prophets’ believe that we can’t keep growing our population or impact on the world without eventually destroying it, and ourselves along with it. Their ideal future is like one of those planets the Federation ships would Prime-Directive right over, where humankind scales back and lives in harmony with the land, taking just enough to sustain our (smaller) numbers and allowing the intricate web of human and non-human creatures to flourish.” (Maryana)
Now, I don’t know that I would fully consider myself a wizard. Technological advancements have done wonderful things, but have also probably significantly increased extinction risk. Even medicine and agriculture aren’t innocent, the advent of factory farming has been in my opinion nothing short of monstrous, and it won’t be long before biotechnologies pose their own serious extinction risks. All the same, reading this review makes it much easier to be comfortable in the company of wizards than prophets. Prophets have used Malthusian panic to defend eugenics while the wizards got down to work initiating the green revolution. This is undoubtedly not the whole story, but it connects very well to the conflict between Senku and Tsukasa, and the places each of them have to go to fulfill their visions.
Stepping back and surveying the driving conflict of Dr. Stone, it may not be one that is as directly and specifically relevant to the rationalist community as classic ratfics, but its key interest is something that I see playing a major role in rationalist discussions and ideology, in particular the sizable transhumanist contingent. In its way, I think it hits closer to the heart for many rationalists than the themes of The Martian or Death Note, even if it is a worse parable of good planning in particular.
I think it is possible to read the combination of these superficial and deeper thematic elements as furthering the case that Dr. Stone is a ratfic, but it is possible to go the other way, and say that if it weren’t for some superficial aspects of it, I would not be reading into the themes so much. I disagree, I think that I would notice the wizard-vs-prophet elements of the plot and be unusually interested in their execution even if these superficial elements weren’t there, but it is also worth keeping in mind the superficial elements that would detract from one’s impression of Dr. Stone as ratfic.
The biggest one is the tone. The tone of ratfic is in my experience a cross between the didactic/sincere/opinionated characters of a Robert Heinlein novel, and a certain realist, edgy take on the media it’s riffing on akin to something like Watchmen. Needless to say, good as these works can be in their ways, they are not for everyone. Dr. Stone’s tone isn’t for everyone, but in very different ways. For one thing the characters are nothing like a Heinlein novel, Senku isn’t exactly Spockish, but it is clear that he has trouble expressing certain feelings if they clash with the cool personal image he is cultivating, which consists of essentially one emotion (something a bit like smug excitement). He will occasionally express a strong opinion, but it is rarely with many words. Rather than responding to Tsukasa’s rant about the importance of culling the old and the greedy with an elaborate, citation-laden rant of his own, Senku just calmly says that he isn’t moved one millimeter by the arguments, and insists that he will save everyone and bring back the modern world whatever Tsukasa says. When Senku is longwinded, it is just to give technical explanations.
Likewise, the tone is not especially edgy. Dr. Stone feels a bit to my American standards like it’s in a weird kids/adult media limbo, like much of the Shonen media I’ve watched4. Much of the time Dr. Stone feels like a kids show, with sidebars from “Mecha-Senku” to explain plans and designs and tell the kids not to try this at home, along with weird catchphrases the show manages to beat pretty dead (Senku’s “ten billion”, Chrome calling everything that is either good or bad “bad”, Gen’s frequent dropping into pig latin, although those last two appear to be different in the original Japanese). On the other hand, the themes I have discussed are often fairly mature and intense, and the show doesn’t mind blood, or killing characters with poison gas. Still, my leaning is that it feels an awful lot like a kids show.
Aside from the age-content aspects, the show’s tone also just feels more… fun? I mean there are comedic elements in much ratfic, but in a different vein. Playful is maybe a good description for Dr. Stone. It takes itself seriously, but it is not a “serious” show. I think this, together with the poor use of rational planning, is the strongest case that Dr. Stone doesn’t fit in with ratfic as well as things like The Martian and Death Note.
You could also just deny that it is ratfic by definition by saying that ratfic is more of a scene than a genre. Dr. Stone does not come from the scene of ratfic, it seems to have arrived at its ratty ways down a very different route. To be clear, I have not researched the background of Dr. Stone, and all of my speculation might be entirely contradicted somewhere, but my theory is that Dr. Stone is essentially an educational series for older kids, whose creator got way more into it than expected. As I’ve said, the key conflict of the show was the battle between the kingdom of strength and the kingdom of science, but the kingdom of strength isn’t really ideologically kraterocratic. Likewise it is not clear that the science needed to be accurate just to get kids into science, plenty of popular media designed to excite kids about STEM is not especially concerned with showing its work. And Senku himself didn’t need to have any view of science other than “it’s cool and I’m good at it”.
Dr. Stone may not always be a “serious” show, but it is a show that takes itself seriously. It seems to me Inagaki was not satisfied with a fun series about some science experiments that pitted a science hero against a strength-obsessed mirror image. Although the key themes of the show may not have been on Inagaki’s mind from the beginning, the consequence of taking science seriously as a positive ideology, and making Tsukasa an interesting and even likeable villain, was something that feels something like a rationalist fanfiction of a weaker possible series.
Whatever the background, Dr. Stone wound up somewhere that’s familiar to me, and whether it counts as some sort of ratfic or not, I find it has a special place in my heart next to ratfics, for the type of worldview it embraces and the nerdier areas of my brain it shamelessly panders to.
It is not really an original observation on my part that this is not super sound reasoning on its own, after all the existence of Superman should have made the existence of risks Superman made everyone safer from, like Zod, Ursa, and Non, quite predictable. ↩︎
You could also say that Tsukasa was finally won over with medicine as well, because of the curing of his formerly comatose sister, but this didn’t exactly involve a new innovation on Senku’s part. This was just the combination of the healing properties of the petrification that had already happened to her, and the depetrification process that Senku developed in the first episode. ↩︎