Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Elizabeth Bear,
Sarah Monette & Amanda Downum,
Shadow Unit: Season One
(www.shadowunit.org, 2008)

And now -- to quote Monty Python -- for something completely different.

Shadow Unit is a website collaboration between Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette and Amanda Downum. Framed as a "television" series with biweekly episodes, the site contains six novellas and one novel (the "season finale") chronicling the adventures of the FBI's Anomalous Crimes Task Force. In keeping with the television series theme, the site is also host to "deleted scenes," "DVD extras" (such as the delightful "WTF BBQ" sequence) and "Easter eggs" (extras reached by hyperlinks hidden in the text by the simple expedient of turning off the normal underlining and blue text).

The Anomalous Crimes Task Force is a sub-unit of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit. They are referred to as "Shadow Unit" because they are not an official FBI department. Within the BAU, they are also referred to as "Down the Hall" or, sometimes, "WTF" (and though it's not specifically stated, yes, that does mean what you think it does). Shadow Unit is tasked with the investigation of crimes attributed to individuals infected by the Anomaly -- and no one knows precisely what the Anomaly is or where it came from, or even how it infects people. All they do know is that when an individual is infected by the Anomaly, he or she is suddenly capable of remarkable paranormal feats. Unfortunately, since the Anomaly is interested in causing and maximizing pain, infected people (referred to as "gammas") are generally turned into the equivalent of supervillains, only without the masks and scenery-chewing.

Fortunately, Shadow Unit has superheroes on its side. Former Secret Service agent Hafidha Gates and Special Agent Charles "Chaz" Villette are both "betas" -- individuals infected by the Anomaly who control its manifestation rather than the other way around, unlike the gammas (normal humans are "alphas"). Unfortunately for Chaz and Hafidha, while they are not controlled by the Anomaly, the higher functioning of their bodies and the constant need for high-caloric intake means that their lifespans are considerably shortened compared to their workmates. (This also leads to an unusual emphasis on food, so don't be surprised if reading Shadow Unit makes you hungry.)

In time-honored TV show fashion, the audience is introduced to Shadow Unit in "Breathe" (1.01 by Emma Bull) by following a new hire, Special Agent Daphne Worth, on her first case with the ACTF. Worth, a former paramedic, was introduced to the Anomaly when a dead gamma came back to life in her ambulance and killed her crewmates. As a consequence of that encounter, she worked her way through FBI training and got herself assigned to the BAU specifically so she could request a transfer to Shadow Unit.

While throughout the season each character is given the chance to be the viewpoint character, season one is all about Chaz. He is clearly the writers' favorite character; although we learn other characters' backgrounds, it is Chaz about whom we learn the most, and in the season finale (1.08, "Refining Fire" by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull), it is Chaz who is the focus -- unfortunately for him. (And if you pay attention, you'll see that the seeds for the season finale are planted in the second episode, "Knock on Coffins" by Elizabeth Bear.)

Despite the mix of writers, the tone of the stories is consistent. The narratives are extremely readable and extremely compelling (each time I go back to check a detail, I end up reading for several screen-lengths before I can pull myself away). The site design is simple and straightforward; the mix of black, burgundy and grey is easy on the eyes and the stories are black text on a grey background. Character sketches are provided by Amanda Downum.

Shadow Unit shares a certain sensibility with The X-Files; in her essay "Sanding the Oyster: the Origins of Shadow Unit," Emma Bull mentions other influences as well: Millenium, Criminal Minds, Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers and Emergency! Fans of any of those shows might find themselves interested in Shadow Unit, undoubtedly the best television show that never aired.

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Laurie Thayer

26 July 2008

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