MICE is Nice: Milieu Novels

Novels can be described as milieu, idea, character, or event novels. What is driving the story? One of those four, with a blend of the others. Most novels are not 90% one and 10% the rest, but varying blends of all of them. Today I want to look at milieu novels, and see how they work, or don’t.

What is a milieu novel? I’d argue that there are two definitions you can use. First, it is a work of fiction where the setting is a character in the book. The setting drives the action, plays a role, even has moods if you will. The second definition is a book that could not take place in any other location.

Two that come to mind in the “book cannot happen elsewhere” are Frank Herbert’s Dune and Mirabile by Janet Kagen. Imagine Paul Atreides and company without the great desert planet, without the Fremen and the sand worms, without the Water of Life. It doesn’t make sense. Spice drives everything, and without Arrakis, there is no spice. The enormous spaces, the dry world, water more precious than human life… they make the novel. The battles between the families could take place elsewhere, but Dune needs Arrakis. In fact, there are some complaints that Herbert wrote the story just he’d have an excuse to spend half the book and more exploring Arrakis, discussing its biology and environment.

Likewise Kagen’s Mirabile depends entirely on the setting. For those unfamiliar with the book, humans set out to colonize the galaxy, and crammed a whole bunch of DNA info into a limited number of critters, anticipating that everything and everyone would arrive at their destination without problem or difficulty, and the DNA could be unfolded, separated, and sorted at leisure.

I’ll wait for the laughter and groans to stop.

The novel is about the trials and tribulations of a biologist who has to track down the critters and plants that have decided to start manifesting a new-to-people part of that crammed-in DNA. Some are amusing, but many are deadly, and all are unpredictable, because no one knows anymore how many and which plants and animals are jammed into others. Pansies could contain pachyderms! And add in the native flora and fauna, and big trouble ensues.

The world makes the book. The setting, as it has become by the time the protagonist is at work, is the single driver of many events in the book. No Mirabile, no story.

Landscape-as-driver appears in many westerns, both popular and literary. Conrad Richter’s The Sea of Grass, set on the Plains of San Augustine in south-central New Mexico, is the first American novel to use place as a character. It’s a short novel, and I recommend it highly as a way to see how place can be used. You could probably argue that westerns require setting as a character, or at very least a major plot driver. The Time it Never Rained by Elmer Kelton is another classic. A painful read if you are into farming or ranching, but classic. The terrible drought of the 1950s* and its effects on ranches in the Edwards Plateau country around San Angelo drives the story. There are also literary elements, which is why the book straddles “literature” and westerns.

My Shikari books depend on setting to an extent, although it is not really a character after the second book (due out this spring.) Shikhari is a human colony world, and it holds a secret that the natives either never knew, or have forgotten. The first book centers on Auriga “Rigi” Bernardi and her cousin Tomás Prananda as they explore the wild forest near their homes, and then with their Uncle, Aunt, and a family associate, and some of the native Staré they map and study more of their adopted home world. Not all elements of the story depend on happening on Shikhari, but the place is a character and it strongly influences events and action.

Over the course of the series, the Shikari books change from Milieu to Event to Character driven.

Which brings an important point—no book is a pure milieu or idea or character or event book. One or two of the four dominate, so in Dune you have Milieu and Event (or Character. You could argue either way). A pure Milieu book would be the world-guide that James Cameron wrote for Avatar, describing the geology and natural history of the planet, and which I found far more interesting than the film. I’d love to read more books like that for fictional worlds, but I’m not sure there is much of a market for them.  Short-fiction and essays might work for pure milieu, although even then it would have to be done carefully. The late Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” appears at first to be a milieu story, and slams into an idea story at the end.

So, what other milieu stories can you think of? And how can you use that in your own work?

*Amarillo has now gone 114 days without precipitation. Drought is a painfully present topic at the moment, with fine dust everywhere and range fires daily.

41 thoughts on “MICE is Nice: Milieu Novels

  1. Bradbury’s The Martian Chroncles is one I enjoyed in college, enough to try modeling my first novel on it. But Bradbury was a much higher artist than I and made it a coherent work instead of the Pantser’s Epic-with-Everything that discovered about midway through that it had forgotten to bring a plot.

  2. You mentioned “Dune”. Of great interest is the book from which Frank Herbert drew much of the Dune series: Lesley Blanche’s classic “The Sabers of Paradise” ( http://amzn.to/2FI9BVn ). One might almost accuse Herbert of plagiarism for drawing so many of his characters and scenarios from that book – but it’s not a novel, it’s history. Well worth your time.

  3. Skelton wrote that every incident in “The Time It Never Rained” actually happened to someone.

  4. As much as I love the characters in Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels, they do take second place to the setting of Amber vs. Chaos and all of Shadow in between. Bruce Sterling’s “Schismatrix” also comes to mind, as does Ursula Le Guin’s “The Left Hand Of Darkness”.

  5. I’ve worked on novels that are more or less milieu stories myself. Madeleine and the Mists more than A Diabolical Bargain, I think.

  6. Geographic novels in the United States are an early-mid 19th century creation. The style languishes utterly forgotten, as witness your wonderful treatment of MICE. Cf
    The Grand and the Fair: Poe’s Landscape Aesthetics and Pictorial Techniques
    by Kent P. Ljungquist (Author)

    Yes, Kent is (well, was; I retired) a colleague of mine. Yes, *that* Poe.

  7. Just in case anyone missed the news (I just heard about it today) Walmart has entered into a partnership with respect to Kobo.
    E-books and audiobooks distribution.
    What that means for everyone here remains to be seen.

    1. I think most other-world fantasies are going to at least have a strong milieu contribution.

      Also some horror – like Lovecraft.

  8. I think I can make an argument that most hard SF is, at least significantly, milieu stories.

    Clement’s Mission of Gravity is a pure milieu story. And his Iceworld manages to take a mystery set on Earth and turn it into a milieu story (and it’s wonderful watching him do that, with the differences in the viewpoint character).

    Anderson’s Tau Zero is clearly a milieu story. Niven’s RIngworld. Blish’s “Surface Tension” (or the collection of stories set there — The Seedling Stars).

    For more modern stuff, Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep.

    1. Excellent point, Ben. Many of the Venus Equilateral and other space-station stories also count. _The Martian_ might be a bit of an exception, because it feels 50/50 milieu and event on first reading. Then it shifts a bit more if you read it again.

      1. Or, for that matter, reading about what Clement did in building Mission of Gravity, which he described in his essay, “Whirligig World” in the June 1953 Astounding (it’s been reprinted a few times, usually in the back of some volume that reprints the novel). He carefully describes what he wanted to do, and how he went about the world building (and consider that the astronomical knowledge wasn’t where it is now, and, of course, no computers — he did it all by slide rule (some of you are probably too young to have heard of them, and many of you are too young to have used them — they’re a manual analog device for doing multiplication, logarithms, etc.)).

        And it starts with a few paragraphs that talk about him and his writing in ways that tell you a lot about the author, and what hard SF was.

        “Writing a science fiction story is fun, not work. If it were work, I wouldn’t be writing this article, which would then constitute a chapter for a textbook. I don’t plan to write such a text, since if the subject is teachable I’d be creating competition, and if it isn’t, I’d be wasting time.

        “The fun, and the material for this article, lies in treating the whole thing as a game. I’ve been playing the game since I was a child, so the rules must be quite simple. They are; for the reader of a science-fiction story, they consist of finding as many as possible of the author’s statements or implications which conflict with the facts as science currently understands them. For the author, the rule is to make as few slips as he possibly can.”

  9. Speaking of Dune, tonight I have the chance to see David Lynch’s adaptation on the big screen. Should be . . . interesting.

    1. Hope you enjoyed it. I though it a relatively successful adaptation. I loathe most adaptations to film, but I thought this one captured most of the essence.

  10. I love a good milieu. Or a good idea. Or both.

    One (of many) reason I haven’t managed to finish anything of any length is that I have trouble caring enough about the characters to stay with them through the boring parts. After all, they’re just there to give me an excuse to show you the setting…

  11. “*Amarillo has now gone 114 days without precipitation. Drought is a painfully present topic at the moment, with fine dust everywhere and range fires daily.”

    I come from an area of the country where five months without precipitation is called “summer.” (This is not to denigrate the severity of drought. It’s just to point out that 114 days in a row without rain can be normal, given certain locations. One inch of rain between May and October inclusive is the normal.)

    1. Indeed. On average Amarillo gets 15% or so of its yearly precip between November and March. So our winters are comparatively dry, but this is getting a little out of hand, even for a semi-arid region.

  12. I guess I’m a milieu-ist, if that’s a thing. Now, there’s a fuzzy border between milieu and idea; unusual worlds that dominate their novels are also ideas, or collections of ideas. My escape-proof prison planet in The Cunning Blood is a milieu based on an idea: seeding a planet with nanites that seek out and corrode electrical conductors, so electric devices don’t work for more than a few hours, tops.

    1. Oh, yeah. Milieus vary in importance even in milieu based works. But when the world is important — I had some fun with non-Euclidean geography.

  13. I’m probably writing a milieu story, given it’s set in Russia and winter, which is very Russian. And it’s all Larry Correia’s fault for his amusing ‘bon mot’ about Russia being all vodka and depression.

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