The Lucy Conundrum, The Dalek Fallacy, and the ED 209 problem

From the blog  Super Connectivity

by Charlie Esser for the Nuff Said Podcast


Coming soon to a theater near you is a film called Lucy.

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If you have seen the trailers for this film, you are likely excited by the action, effects, and top tier talent associated with the film.

Then you hear this:

“Lucy is the first person to use more than 10% of her brain.”

Even the dulcet tones of Mr. Morgan Freeman aren’t enough to wash down that particular canard.

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That humans use the whole of our brains all the time is a well established scientific principle, and fans of sci-fi maybe more aware of this than the general populace.   While it may not hurt the film at the box office it does present an excellent example of what I will be referring to as the Lucy Conundrum:

A problem that occurs when a given explanation for an extraordinary occurrence in fiction works to undermine said explanation. 

When a work of fiction presents an extraordinary event, be it space ships or superhuman abilities, the existence of these become the reality of that Universe.  It doesn’t matter if you want to say that Superman catching Lois Lane as she falls would result in physical damage to Lois when impacting Superman’s arms, that isn’t what happens, with no explanation in the work that you can dissect, you have to accept that the that the extraordinary occurrence is viable in this universe.  The Lucy Conundrum  occurs when a fiction writer opts to provide an explanation that we can then dissect, and that dissection pulls us from our immersion in that Universe.

Now, this film has yet to be released, so it is entirely possible that an in story bit of handwaivium explains away the use of the 10% canard.  Perhaps Mr. Freeman states with his unquestionable authority that the term 10% is a short hand referencing the numerous functions of the brain that we are not consciously aware of, that might be enough to remystify the superhumanity of Ms. Johansson so that people can move along with the narrative as presented.  That isn’t however, what we have seen so far in the promotional material.
That is the real problem of the Lucy Conundrum.  Fiction seeks to bring people into a universe, and every fictional universe, be it science, magic, romance, or crime based, needs to ring true to the audience.  Most of the audience won’t have firsthand knowledge of the presented facts of the universe, so writers can get away with an awful lot.  But once that popular ignorance fades, then the ability of people to move along with the story becomes impeded.

Now, it should be noted that the Dalek Fallacy can likewise pull people from the story.  But in that case the problem will be limited to only those who insist upon their view of the fictional universe.   The Dalek Fallacy is the assumption that because it appears that Daleks (a popular Dr. Who Villain) are unable to go up or down stairs it is impossible for them to be the universe conquering bad guys that they are.  In the new series of Dr. Who, this Fallacy was directly addressed and shown to be false, but the idea had persisted for decades, prior to that based on an assumption of the facts not the presentation of the facts in the show. 

The Dalek fallacy however never rises to the problem of the Lucy Conundrum because it can be explained away by the suggestion of additional knowledge not presented.  When a writer opts to give a further explanation of their extraordinary occurrences, they run the risk of moving from criticism based on the Dalek Fallacy into the Lucy Conundrum.  No one ever said that Daleks couldn’t fly, it was just assumed because we never saw it in the show, with Lucy we are told out right the origin of her powers, and once you are taken out of the film by the Lucy Conundrum, you start running into the ED-209 problem.

ED-209 was a robot in the original Robocop movie series which was shown to not be able to walk down stairs.  This was considered a basic design flaw in the ED-209, but one that is understandable given that the ED-209 was likely never intended to walk down stairs.  It was intended to walk level urban streets killing or intimidating criminals and citizens alike. 

Once you are brought out of the film by the Lucy Conundrum, you will likewise start to question the basic factual questions presented, just as you question the ED-209’s design.   Once you are out of the universe, you may ask what the purpose of this chemical that Lucy is exposed to is, why was it sown inside her to smuggle it, why once it was sown inside her did the gangsters repeatedly kick her causing the bags the burst?  If you are swept along in the film, you might not raise any of these questions until later, what Alfred Hitchcock called Fridge logic, the logic that only strikes you after the program is finished and you are standing over the fridge. If you aren’t swept along with the story, suddenly all these little threads in the film can come loose as you’re watching, and this can destroy the film.

All fiction is a house of cards, tied together by a shared suspension of disbelief.  When the belief gets questioned, the connections fall loose and the whole structure can tumble down.

Maybe Ms. Johansson  and Mr. Freeman, and the special effects of the film will provide enough excitement to keep us from questioning the film too deeply. I hope so. I do want to love this film.  

When the writer creates a conundrum like this, it just makes it that much harder  for everyone else to make the magic happen.   The ultimate human potential  is a great explanation for super powers, but sometimes it’s better not to explain it too much.

Posted on July 15, 2014 .