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.