Americans, at least some of us, have trouble with the idea of luck. John Chait once observed that “the argument that getting rich often entails a great deal of luck tends to drive conservatives to apoplexy.” Maybe this is because theodicy undergirds much of our society, or maybe because luck is a confusing and even possibly disturbing concept. After all, what is luck but a nametag-friendly moniker for that dark spirit: chance? Or, worse: random chance. Hence the derision in Obi-Wan’s sneering: “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck,” the word itself spat out from the wise beard of a man who knows how things work. Then again, Obi-Wan can deflect lasers with his lightsaber and also live, albeit with diminished opacity, beyond death.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers is at pains to make the case that maybe, possibly, phenomenally wealthy people were able to accumulate their wealth because they were lucky. The rich people I happen to know think this is totally ludicrous. I mean, I like them, but their response to my bringing up this possibility tends to be almost unimaginably hostile, as if I’d emptied my kitchen garbage on their coffee table. They describe, in obsessive detail, their daily hours worked, their education, the things they had sacrificed. If you play by the rules and win, damn it, you should be allowed to enjoy it. I guess.
Falkor, the luck dragon from The Neverending Story, embodies a different sort of insanity altogether. His chuckling motto, “With Luck!,” excuses, or attempts to excuse, his total lack of foresight or planning. The moments in the movie when Bastian asks, incredulously, how their plan could possibly work, and Falkor responds, with his huge tongue rolling in his mouth, “With Luck!,” are profoundly disturbing. The stakes in this situation are very high. Basically the entire fantasy world of the movie is at risk, and here’s Falkor acting drunk and crazy, and just figuring it’ll all work out. And it does! Thinking it over, Falkor’s behavior is perfectly reasonable. He is a luck dragon, so his luck is always good, so why shouldn’t he just fly around and look ridiculous?
Of course, there are two big problems with this analysis. 1) Neverending Story is a work of fiction, and Falkor is pretty much the plot’s sledgehammer. The fact that Falkor exists will, in itself, protect everyone–his good luck is infinite. But 2) following this, why didn’t Falkor’s incredible luck stop all the bad stuff from happening in the first place? Surely, if he is so lucky, he would have accidentally run into or eaten or burned up the enemy before things started going downhill, right? So just what does Falkor really tell us about luck? If we read the movie allegorically, Bastian, the hero, saves the world through his determination and courage, and Falkor (here representing good luck) is with him. Falkor likes him, it seems — that is, good, noble heroes “make their own” luck, basically what Obi-Wan says.
So we turn then to another lucky figure:
Longshot of the X-Men is, indeed, possibly the X-Man with the most underwhelming character sketch of them all: he is a biologically engineered TV-star with hollow bones who has amazing luck so long as his heart is pure. So, right from the start we see the link between purity of heart (like Bastian) and good luck (like Falkor) — at least here inhabited by the same person, the blond-mulleted Longshot.
Beyond even the confluence of purity and luck, the whole idea of Longshot is ridiculous. Among the other X-Men, he would seem to be the ultimate poser. There’s Wolverine, who suffered torment, amnesia, lost love with the added misery of uncertainty about whether the love even happened at all. Cyclops, raised in an orphanage, who once had to kill the love of his life, at her urging, to save the galaxy. I could go on, but the point is that Longshot has no business with these people, and yet, gentle reader, Longshot is awesome. The scenes between Longshot, Colossus, and Wolverine playing pool at a seedy bar (and by the way, why would you play pool with Longshot — his power is amazing luck!), or flirting with girls (same question, basically), are brilliant. Longshot is always at ease, which makes sense, since nothing ever goes wrong for him.
In one particularly memorable sequence, the X-Men are fighting a particular instantiation of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (ah the late eighties, your touchingly straight good/evil dichotomies bring a tear to my eye!). One enemy, Vertigo, exerts her power to make everyone very dizzy. The heavy hitters are neutralized. Cyclops can’t use his eyebeams, for fear of blowing up his own people. Wolverine, obviously, can’t do anything if he can’t find his way to the enemy. So Longshot, dizzy and confused, throws a handful of his trademark knives at random and… they cut the rope holding a sign above Vertigo’s head. The sign falls on her and she falls unconscious.
There’s no need to rehash how obviously this is the same plot-hammer effect we saw with Falkor. The interesting facet of Longshot’s existence, though, is that despite the fact that luck is a part of him, a part of who he is, if he starts to doubt the purity of his goals or his morals it goes away. The explanation for this is basically that Longshot’s “innocence,” or his “purity,” or his “selfless motives” constitute the foundation for his luck. But why on Earth should that be so, even in a world that includes fantastical mutant powers?
Probably because we refuse to believe it could be any other way. Think of such a terrifying power as luck, which transcends the story and makes it possible for the plot to change, in the service of evil! An evil Longshot would be unstoppable, as would an evil Falkor. There would be nothing anyone could do to stop them. No, in these stories, characters whose luck is uniformly good must themselves be good to the same degree.
And so, at last, we turn to Teela Brown, surely admirable as the only creation of the three whose special luck is explained in scientific terms. Teela Brown is a character in Ringworld, by Larry Niven, and she is the result of a government program to breed a lucky person. How is this done? Parents who wish to have children, in this story, must enter a lottery. The odds get worse the more children a couple already has. In a classic riff on the old seventh-son-of-a-seventh-son trope, Teela Brown is the seventh child of a seventh child, and so on, since the lottery system was introduced. She has the genes for luck.
This novel concept is both stronger and weaker than the other two, because there are rules. Teela Brown’s luck, the product of evolution, protects her and her ability to reproduce, and everyone else is on their own. At least, that seems to be the idea, although the question kept rising in my head: wouldn’t it be even luckier if everyone around her wanted only to protect her, and they were invincible? Or, better, that no evil existed in the world, or, at least, none that threatened her?
These questions are adequately countered by the idea that Teela Brown meets her match in the Ringworld, a huge and extremely dangerous alien landscape. Maybe in a couple dozen generations…
Of course, the idea of Teela Brown is ludicrous. There is no genetic basis for luck. There is no basis at all. Luck is our name for the short, incomprehensible ends of the probability curve, a subset of all possible outcomes that rightly terrifies us. “Good luck,” we wish one another, acknowledging thereby the awful power of random chance, and it is a wish. Luck is not a quality of people; it is a quality of the universe from the perspective of people.
All the stories we tell ourselves about luck essentially recapitulate Obi-Wan’s assertion, that there is no such thing as luck. They do this by portraying luck as something controllable, something that is attracted to the good guys, or that abandons villains, or that we can breed for. These in turn form a larger story, about how luck isn’t, somehow, just a fearful name for the caprice of an uncaring universe.
- Mitty on Mitty - December 3, 2014
- Falkor, Longshot, and Teela Brown: A Meditation on Luck - September 30, 2014