MICE: The Idea

"idea" © 2005 by Tony Dowler

"idea" © 2005 by Tony Dowler

I was listening to a recent episode of the Writing Excuses podcast. It’s about Orson Scott Card’s M.I.C.E. quotient.

M = Milieu (Setting, but S.I.C.E. doesn’t spell anything useful.)
I = Idea
C = Character
E = Event

Good stories will have more than one of these present. Novels may have all four. But one will usually stand dominant above the rest.

I was thinking about this as I was driving to work the other day listening to a totally different podcast (Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing). They were talking on that podcast about whether published authors ever give negative book reviews.

And I got to thinking about what makes even a book I wasn’t overly enthused about worth reading all the way through.

I can forgive a lot of things, but I think Card’s M.I.C.E. quotient is a pretty good indicator of what I won’t forgive.

In this post, I’ll talk about Idea, because it’s what came to mind first, and I think it’s the most unforgivable deficiency in these genres when it’s not there. Subsequent posts will deal with the other three components.

Back when I first discovered what I consider “my” genres of writing—science fiction, fantasy, horror—I mostly got my fix from the Greene County Public Library. It was a small building on the corner of the town square in my hometown of Eutaw, Alabama. I can still smell the place when I think of it. That smell of old books and dust that is peculiar to libraries and used book stores.

They had Asimov, Clarke, and Bradbury. I cut my genre teeth on these guys—and others, of course, but mainly the Big Three™. Some of my favorite stories of all time were written by one of these men.

The stories written in the Golden Age of Science Fiction mostly had The Idea as their main component. Even today, if a story that is not all that magnificent otherwise has a good Idea embedded in it, I can still enjoy the exploration of that idea.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is…not all that great a book. I reviewed it—and Brown’s entire œvre—elsewhere, if you’re interested. (Note: it is what I would call a scathing review. If Dan Brown is reading this, I apologize, but I do stand by my assessment.) But even TDVC had some good ideas floating around in it. The idea that the Holy Grail was a person and not an actual chalice, and that the blood of Christ referred to his child with Mary Magdalene and not his actual blood…those were good ideas, and were worth reading the book for. (We’ll leave for another day the discussion of whether these are original ideas or not, and whether that even matters.)

Piers Anthony is one of my go-to authors. When he publishes something, I generally make sure to pick up a copy. His works are made of Idea. They’re practically bursting at the seams with Idea. The Xanth series, the Tarot series, the Adept series, Macroscope, Sos the Rope, the Bio of a Space Tyrant series, the Cluster series, the Incarnations of Immortality series…I could go on. What Anthony does is nothing short of miraculous…in his first books of his series. The Idea is spellbinding. You find yourself thinking, “Wow! How did no one else come up with this before! This is amazing!”

Where he tends to fall down is in subsequent books in the same series. The Idea is no longer fresh, and the story has to be carried by Milieu, Character, and Event, which he does to varying degrees of success. He’s especially good at taking an idea that has been done before and making it fresh, again.

Take Incarnations of Immortality as an example. In the first book, On a Pale Horse, the main character is Death. Yes, Death. The actual dude. But not at first. Where he makes it new is that our main character doesn’t start the book as Death; he starts the book as a poor bastard who has nothing else to live for, and finally decides to just end it all. He puts a gun to his head and gets ready to pull the trigger. Then, he sees someone come into his room at the last second. Startled, he does what comes naturally: he turns the gun on the intruder and shoots them.

He killed Death. And now, he must become death. It’s how the office of ‘Death’ passes from one holder to the next.

Now, that is an Idea worthy of becoming a book, don’t you think? His subsequent books in that series don’t quite do the Idea justice, because he tries to tie them together into a single narrative, and he handles the offices of Time, Nature, Fate, War, God, and the Devil—the Incarnations of Immortality of the title of the series—with varying degrees of success. In particular, I think he dropped the ball with Time (Bearing an Hourglass), but did better with the others.

But it’s that Idea that kept me reading, even though some of the books weren’t great. They were all good.

The Xanth “trilogy” (currently at somewhere around 37 books) is no different. The first three books were…just astoundingly good. Some of the subsequent ones weren’t. I nearly quit reading somewhere around Vale of the Vole, but I persevered, and they got better. Now, if I see a Xanth book, I buy it. I know it’ll be a quick read, fun, and I’ll enjoy it. It may not have deep character development, it may have predictable setting (Xanth itself), but it will have an Idea and usually an Event worthy of the price.

When I discovered Urban Fantasy, I didn’t know how vast the subgenre had gotten. I knew about Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, but that was about it. I started writing in the genre before I read anything other than Hamilton. I’ve since read avidly and widely.

I find that each series has one or two things going for it. Enough to keep me reading, anyway. The best example is probably Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files. It has all four components, but I’m impressed with each new book how he manages to keep the Idea fresh. In the most recent one, Harry—the main character is Harry Dresden, for the 8 people on Earth who have never heard of this series—is a ghost throughout (most of) the novel. The Idea: What if the character, a powerful wizard, is suddenly bereft of his powers and has no way of interacting with the world of the living? That, alone, would probably have made me read it.

Other notable examples are Kat Richardson’s Greywalker series and Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels series. The Idea in Greywalker concerns what ‘greywalker’ means. The Idea in Ilona Andrews’ series is that magic is leaking into the normal world, and it has ripped Atlanta apart at the seams. With each new wave of magic (magic and technology function independently, but in waves), more of Atlanta is changed.

I’m sucked in by both series primarily because of these Ideas. The Characters are good (if a bit too Jane Kick-Ass at times), the Milieu is good, and the Events are good, too. But the Ideas are what drew me in.

Flatland is a book based almost entirely on Idea. And Idea manages to carry pretty much the entirety of the story. There is some small attempt at character and quite a bit of attention to setting/milieu, but in this particular case, Milieu and Idea are very nearly the same thing.

I think for me Idea is the crucial element of the four. A book that has almost no setting, character development, or event can still hold my interest if the Idea is good enough, fresh enough, or interesting enough.

Granted, it would have to be an incredible Idea to carry a book by itself, but it could happen. :) And perhaps the converse is also true: if a story has no Idea, as long as the other three components are good enough, it can sustain my interest, but it’s going to have to try that much harder. I’m reading a book right now, in fact, that is low on Idea, and it’s been tough going to read it. I really like the characters, the author invented a rich, deep world to put them in, and the events are nothing short of epic. But the Idea portion is lacking. There’s nothing especially fresh about the story, but it’s told very well. Unfortunately, the Event chosen by the author is a war, and I’m not that into war-based Events. I tore through the book right up the point where the war started, and it’s taken me months to make it through the rest.

Perhaps Event will be what I talk about next time.

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