MICE: The Milieu

Stage, © 2011 by George Foster


In my last post about Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient, I talked about The Idea. As I said in that first post, MICE represents the four elements every story must have at least one (but preferably more) of: Milieu (Setting), Idea, Character, and Event.

The next one of the four items I want to talk about is Milieu, or Setting. As I said before, Card only chose “milieu” instead of “setting” because SICE doesn’t make a word.

There are a lot of stories I can think of that are inextricably rooted in the setting. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit spring immediately to mind. These stories were as much about Middle Earth as they were about the characters and the events and ideas that they involve. Mirkwood, The Shire, Tom Bombadil’s wood, Smaug’s lair, Khazad Dûm, the Ents’ forest, Mordor…such riches of setting, and so beautifully described by Tolkien. Chances are, if you’ve read them—and if you’re reading this and you haven’t read them, then stop reading this right now and go read them—as soon as you read the words “Mirkwood” or “Smaug’s lair,” you knew exactly what I was talking about, right down to the creep factor. Because they were so vividly described.

Another that fits in this category is Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Green Sky trilogy. Again, if you haven’t read these wonderful books, go do so. The world of Green Sky is vividly described, and is as integral to the story as any of the characters. The characters are of Green Sky and the stories evolve from Green Sky.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I mean . . . come on. I’d still go to Narnia as readily today—as a 46-year-old with a mortgage and several thousand dollars in credit card debt—as I would have as a 12-year-old suffering through the Chicken Pox first reading them. Because Lewis made the world of Narnia come alive for me. It is a real place to me, every bit as three-dimensional as my own hometown. And I think I’d recognize Cair Paravel, the Beaver’s Lodge, the Lamp Post, or The Stone Table if I saw them today . . . off on the horizon . . . beckoning.

I think therein lies the key. To matter, the setting of the story must be at least as integral to the story as any of the other aspects. The characters must exist in the world described by the setting, and the events and ideas must interweave with it. Unless you have this, your story could literally happen anywhere.

Would Dune have been as good if it had been set on a lush, forest world like Yoda’s Dagobah? Perhaps. But it would not have been Dune; it would have been some other work. Because the desert planet with its Fremen and its worms and its place in the empire were the solid foundation upon which the story we know—again, go read it if you haven’t—was built.

If Idea is the framework of a story, then surely Milieu must be the foundation. And without a strong foundation, it doesn’t matter how sturdy the framework is.

As much as the stories I mentioned above depend on their settings to be the stories we know and love, there are those for which the setting is more of a convenience, and it’s fairly easy to tell when that is the case.

Take, for instance, The Belgariad and The Malloreon by David Eddings. I thoroughly enjoyed all ten books and can’t recommend them highly enough . . . but they did have a certain sense to them. A sense of, “I drew this map, and I spent a lot of time on it, and by god I’m going to make you read about every square centimeter of it!”

I was going to mention some settings from the books to see if they’d immediately put as much of a picture in your head as “Mirkwood” or “Narnia” did. But the only ones I could think of were “the farm where Garion grew up with ‘Aunt Pol,'” “Belgarath’s tower,” and “the forest of the dryads.” I can’t even remember the names of these places. Ten books. I read all ten book—multiple times, I admit—and I can’t recall one single place name that is more than a suggestion. But I remember the events, the ideas, and mostly the characters. As far as Milieu goes, these two series could have been set in Cleveland and it would probably have been just as entertaining.

Well, OK, maybe not Cleveland.

Sometimes it works for other reasons. Take The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever and the sequel series both by Stephen R. Donaldson. He spends a good amount of time describing how wonderful The Land is in the first book because his character, Thomas Covenant, is a leper in the real world, but in The Land, he’s not. So everything there is new and fresh and he experiences it all in a rush of heady abandon. And in the second trilogy, The Land has been destroyed and it is only in the ugly contrast to the first books’ descriptions of The Land that we are led to despair as much as Covenant does to see how it has changed. He uses his Milieu as a tool to show us, the reader, how everything has changed, and to make us feel the change as badly as his character.

C. S. Lewis does this in The Last Battle, as well. We all know how wonderful Narnia is, but in the last book, the wonderful Narnia of old is . . . diminished. The dryads are dying because their trees are being chopped down. Aslan is believed to be a myth because He hasn’t visited in so long. The horrible creature Tashlan has been gathering followers, and as readers, we are as upset as the characters living there because our Narnia has been blighted.

Sometimes the Milieu can take on a life of its own. For instance, in Star Trek, the Milieu is a utopian future wherein all mankind is happy and fulfilled. Aliens live and work side-by-side with humans on Earth and other planets. Transporter technology, replicator technology, holodeck technology, and a myriad of other technologies have made everything perfect for everyone everywhere. No one wants for anything they can’t get instantly.

So what stories can we possibly tell? There can’t be a story about a regular guy living on a regular planet with a regular job because he can’t want for anything. He can push a button and get whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. So the only stories that can be told are the ones on the fringes of the utopia. The frontier. During conflicts with alien races who—for whatever reason—want to destroy the Federation Way of Life™.

Superman would be bored in the Federation. He’d have to become a Q to have any fun whatsoever.

This is why every episode of every Star Trek series was an exercise in how to subvert the utopia to get to a problem. We have infinite power . . . but what if the dilithium crystal submatrix decrystalized because of an isolinear ovolithic radiation discharge that destabilized the anamorphic subspace field? Chaos, that’s what! Or so we were led to believe, until the end of the 45-minute episode, at which point the problem was solved by the application of good old-fashioned human—or alien—ingenuity and technology.

Or, you know . . . Wesley.

I lay most of this on the utopian society in which the Star Trek shows and novels were set. (Which, incidentally, is what was intended. It was literally Gunsmoke In Space™, so the whole ‘frontier’ thing wasn’t an accident.) Where there is no conflict, there simply is no story. The biblical story of Solomon and the two women who claimed the same baby could not have happened in the world of Star Trek. Solomon could simply use the transporter to create an exact replica/clone of the baby. Then both women could have the baby. Problem solved. No wisdom required.

I could (continue to) expound at length on Star Trek, and drag in the three Stargate series and Babylon 5 as well. My point is this: when the world—the Setting, the Milieu—is well-developed, it and the characters, events, and ideas will be inextricable from one another.

I seem to have stumbled into writing urban fantasy. You can’t talk about urban fantasy without Milieu. That’s the ‘urban’ part. The city in which the stories are set is an inextricable part of the lives of the characters. The events take place in that city.

True Blood, The Dresden Files, the Greywalker Series, the Anita Blake series, the Kate Daniels series, the Kitty Norville series . . . all of these take place in a known city or one very similar to one we know. The authors weave the stories into the real cities, overlaying them with magic and fantastical creatures, but they are still Chicago, Seattle, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Denver. True Blood takes place in a fictional small town in Louisiana called Bon Temps, but anyone from the south will recognize the town as being like every other small town in the south. With very few name changes, it could be set in my hometown of Eutaw, Alabama. (Population: 1800! SaaaaaaLUTE!)

The difference between Milieu and Idea is, I believe, that while Idea can ‘carry’ a story by itself, Milieu can’t.

Not entirely. Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward is set on the surface of a neutron star. I mean wow! But he had to have characters, ideas, and events to make me want to keep reading past the first few pages. Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott is almost entirely Milieu, but to carry it, he has to develop equally interesting characters and events and ideas (mostly ideas). Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought books depend deeply on his Milieu, but again, without interesting characters, ideas, and events, it wouldn’t be readable.

Imagine a novel written like a travelogue. Travelogues are fun if you’re, say, in Greece, and you want to know more about the place. But then, you are the character having your own ideas and making your own events. You wouldn’t read the travelogue of Greece if you weren’t either in Greece or going soon.

Unless someone comes up with a really interesting second-person-POV Choose Your Own Adventure book in which exploring a place is the only goal, I don’t really see Milieu as being capable of carrying a story. Not a very long one, anyway.

So, to sum up: Milieu = foundation. Idea = framework. We still have Character and Event to go. Stay tuned!

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