Tropes and Time


I’m working on rewrites to my upcoming novel this week, and I’ve been doing quite a bit of noodling on character motivations.  Combine that with the recent online panic about Captain America turning out to be a sleeper-agent for Hydra (in the comics) and I’ve been banging my head against tropes, subversion or tropes and all the different ways you can explain a character to a reader (or a viewer, or a gamer).

I get that these tropes exist for a reason.  They’re a shorthand (not always a good shorthand) that taps into the shared experience of everyone who has been consuming media for the past 20 years.  Notice I only say 20.  We humans have a notoriously short lens.  Take an English class sometime and read through anything written before the turn of the 19th century.  Notice how much time your teacher has to spend on setting the context?  Explaining the cultural canon of that timeframe so that you can appreciate the actual depth of the books you’re reading?  Once you know things like; the term “nose” as a common metaphor for “penis”, your understanding of a works can change on a very fundamental level.

The point is that this body of trope and metaphor, what is often referred to as the “cultural canon” is constantly changing and updating.  The tropes of 50 years ago are, by and large, unintelligible to the incoming audience.

But what this means is that these things that we are railing against, these shorthand pieces of storytelling that tap into the cultural canon to cut out hours of work and exposition, these are temporary.  We have the chance to change and direct where they go and what replaces them if we start putting the extra work in now.  There will be fits and starts, of course, there will be throwbacks and reversions to type, but we are already pushing the canon in a new direction.  The idea of a villain with a sympathetic backstory?  That’s NEW, that entered the canon within the past 30 years.  The idea that hero can fail, then *return* to being a hero again?  That’s also NEW.  So while it’s disappointing to see one-note throwbacks, we need to keep in mind that those are on their way out.  As long as we keep pushing to create the new canon, replacing those older, now negative tropes with an easy to use toolkit of new ones, we can keep this evolution moving forward.

The Fashion-Forward Jumpsuit of the Future


Can we discuss the jumpsuit? I’m going to discuss the jumpsuit. For a very long time, and even now in contemporary stories, the jumpsuit has been the default future wear.  I get it, it’s easy. There is a long, established, visual canon of anybody wearing a jumpsuit being from the future (just look at any sci-fi movie from the 80s).

It makes sense for certain professions, right? Most of the time a jumpsuit is a cover-all of some kind used to protect your clothing if you are, say, scraping the coal out of the chimney or painting the walls of an orphanage.  If your characters are working int he bowels of an interstellar freighter, the jumpsuit (or more properly in that case “coverall”) is a good plan.  It makes sense.  As a universal, culture-wide clothing phenomenon, however, it misses the mark a bit.

I can see how the idea of a future society having moved away from trivialities like matching your purse and your shoes or making sure the blacks in your pants and your sweater vest to go together, is an attractive one.  But, I suspect, the people who dress their future societies in jumpsuits have never actually worn one themselves.

Jumpsuits are, perhaps, one of the most inconvenient forms of clothing outside of the vinyl catsuit. Probably easier to wear for men than women, but the logistics of every day bodily functions almost guarantee your jumpsuit being dipped in something nasty before the end of the day.  And don’t tell me that future bathrooms are cleaner than current bathrooms. People are messy. End of story.

Add to this the fact that one size fits all means that it never actually fits anybody.  Leg length, arm length, torso length in your average everyday human is highly variable. There’s not much room for slack in a jumpsuit, it’s almost guaranteed that you will either have to roll up the pants or roll up the sleeves.  Now, granted, in TV shows and movies you have a costuming department that custom-creates these suits for the actors who will be wearing them, so they always “look” fabulous onscreen, but that’s a very one-percent portrayal. Generally speaking your average person doesn’t have the funds or time to have their clothes tailored, so their jumpsuits are going to be ill-fitting and uncomfortable.

Jumpsuits are, in fact, one of my favorite examples of a lack of institutional memory. Every 10 years or so the fashion industry attempts to bring back the jumpsuit. It usually starts in the “Junior Miss” section of one of the major retailers. They look cute on the hanger, they often come in bright colors and a reasonably priced. But they sit there and get moved from the new item rack to the discount rack to the clearance rack in record time.  I’m not sure why they keep trying to bring them back, as even in the jumpsuit heyday they seem to have been a low volume product. It feels like some Junior exec finally got promoted and said “Hey, I just saw Logan’s run! Jumpsuits are the future!”

Our collective fashion consciousness takes one look at the jumpsuit and says “NO”.  Unless we are looking at a Dystopian future where humans are required by law to wear jumpsuits as part of their daily dress, I think the jumpsuit as a future forward fashion trend is a dead end.

And don’t even get me started on pockets.

Alternate Lenses in Limitless

As a visuals geek, I have been delighted with the symbolic language that they have been employing in Limitless. So naturally when I heard they were going to give us an episode from Rebecca’s point of view, I was hugely interested to see if they would take the look in a different direction given a different characters point of view.  We’ve already had different characters on NZT (Piper, Casey, Morro) but the story has still stayed true to Brian being the primary character and hence, it’s to be expected that we continue with his bright worldview and artsy-craftsy problem solving techniques.  In the case of this weeks episode, we are inside Rebecca’s head, which should (I expected) give us a dramatically different outlook on the world.

The look and feel was much subtler than I expected.  With Brian as the POV character, the difference is brighter, the character almost glows during those first few seconds of camera-shift.  We get a similar shift in Rebecca’s case, but it is nowhere near as dramatic (befitting her character’s personality).  I’m not yet sure if that is some kind of foreshadowing but I suspect the next episode will answer this for us.


Rebecca before NZT


Rebecca after NZT

See the color shift?  Everything develops a warmer, orangish tint (it’s particularly noticeable around the whites of the eyes).  This color change sticks (in both Brian’s cases and in Rebecca’s solitary case) thru the entire episode.


The biggest difference between the two characters (which suits them quite nicely, by the way) is that, while Brian’s thought processes and illustrations are on the wildly creative side of things (puppets, houses made of sticks, crayon drawings), Rebecca has fixated on the linear h*ll that is…  The Etch-O-Sketch.

(Please note, I loved my Etch-o-Sketch as a kid, but I had one of those parents who interrupted me every half hour or so because PARENTING, so my experiences with it always came up wanting).


Rebecca’s NZT Etch-a-sketch.  Lady gotz skillz

And the thing about the EaS (because I’m tired of writing “Etch-a-Sketch” over and over) is that to work with one, to really get a proper result like the one you see here, takes forethought, it takes planning.  You can’t erase, not one single line.  This is a linear progression and one that requires a complete and total do-over if you muck it up (or some extra creativity to recover).

One of the reasons all of this is so much fun is that, when Rebecca is not on NZT and Brian *is*, she’s very nearly a match for him.  Brian gets all the obscure stuff, what color a high C-note smells like and other bits that are beyond the norm, but when it comes to the actual case-solving, Rebecca is on a par, sometimes even one step ahead.  So seeing that character outclass Brain when they *both* are on NTZ is something to behold, and the people behind the look and feel of the show are supporting that by carrying over the same visual language normally used in Brian as the main POV character.