“Man is a substance clad in shadows”

Many things these days contribute to my lack of sleep–social activity, parent scheduling, social evenings in different cities, my stubborn refusal to go to sleep when I should, time spent playing with the world through this Internet thing, and–of course–things I start to read when I should go to bed that I just-can’t-put-down.

Sometimes you can see this coming, so you know not to start reading something if it’s late. I was smart enough not to start that new(ish) Tibor Fischer book too late in the evening, or that latest Justina Robson romp, or… well, there’s a lot of traps out there, and sometimes I manage to start them at a decent hour and sometimes they trick me, and I start reading them in the wee hours, and end up finishing them in the hmm-is-that-false-dawn-over-there hours1.

One thing always seems to get me though: new episodes of Shadow Unit. They never seem as dangerous to sleep as they actually are.

“What’s a Shadow Unit?” you ask? Well, I could point you to what I’ve said about it here before, or I could point you to the official Getting Started, but I think perhaps the best description of what it is was included in a post by one of the main creators:

It’s the latest chapter in a thing we have variously referred to as a virtual television show, an interactive semi-real-time hyperfiction evnvironment, and fanfic for a TV show that doesn’t exist.

What it is when we’re not failing at marketing is a serial shared-world narrative optimized for the internet. Imagine Wild Cards if you could talk to the characters as events play out, and occasionally influence the course of events. The setting is somewhere between Millennium, The X-Files, and Criminal Minds, with touches of The Man from UNCLE. Which is to say it’s about a group of unrealistically sexy, ubercompetent FBI agents attempting to protect the innocent from the worst monsters imaginable, with hints of evil conspiracy.

Maybe.

Unless that’s not what’s going on at all.

So, you can view it as an online series, each episode a novella or novelette (or, in a couple of cases “novel” might be more accurate) that is a complete story, but with an ongoing arc story behind the episodes. The stories are released regularly to the web, arranged in “seasons”, with short breaks between them. The first story of the third season just went live recently, and a schedule was recently announced showing that there will be a total of four seasons before the planned finish of the story.

Oh, and these stories–the people who are writing them? Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette, Will Shetterly, Holly Black, Amanda Downum, Leah Bobet, Chelsea Polk? Recognize any of those? Yeah, I thought so. And if you look at that schedule, there’s clues that a few more people will be playing.

So, lots of free–but donate if you’re enjoying it!–stories, by great authors. Over a million words already in the main storyline! That’s several novels worth of story.

But that main storyline isn’t the whole story. See, many of the characters in the story keep Livejournals, and you’re allowed to interact with them, so long as you don’t break the fourth wall. That’s pretty much a web-only thing–you can’t do that with “normal” novels.

So, you just want to read the stories, you can. They’re great, and you don’t need anything else, and the only things you have to worry about are that you might stay up to late reading or the fact that the creators will put you through an emotional wringer. If you look a little more closely you can find secrets and easter eggs. You don’t need to, but it’s fun. And if you want even more, then you can follow (or even interact with) some of the characters. Pick your level of investment. You can also, of course, interact with the creators and a community of fans on the forum, as well.

I started just reading the stories, but after a while I had to follow the character LJs as well, because the stories were making the people real for me.

(Actually, I whipped up a couple of tools to help with this: a Google gadget to follow the Shadow Unit feed, and Yahoo pipes to follow the character LJs, and creator LJ mentions of Shadow Unit–these get a mention on the Shadow Unit home page, albeit with my name misspelled.)

Most of the content is also available in e-book form, if you prefer to read that way. And there is a suggested timeline of things to read at the wiki if finding the reading order through the hyperlinks seems daunting.

So that’s what it is. Why should you read it?

Well, I’ve said this before, but mostly you should read it because it’s good–because you will come to care about the characters, because you will be interested in the plot arc, because it’s the kind of thing that will keep you up reading long after you should have gone to bed2. But you don’t have to take my word for it, or even just trust the reputations of the writers involved–I just told you how to find out for yourself whether it’s your cup of tea or not. (And if it is, then you should also hit that donate button–this is a gigantic work that they’re giving us for free, so throwing something into the hat should be a no-brainer if you like the show.)

  1. Fortunately I lead a highly-caffeinated life. Do not try this at home.(back)
  2. That last episode–around 53,000 words. If you printed that Courier, single-spaced, that would run to 140 or so letter-sized pages. That’s not an “episode”, that’s a short novel. And you will not stop in the middle of it.(back)

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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada
This work by Chris McLaren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada.