Book of the Month: The Unicorn Evils by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull
I looked through the books I’d read last month, and it turns out that this was the one I enjoyed the most. It’s not a traditional book, you won’t find it in a library or a bookstore (at least not yet), but it is the latest installment in one of my favorite new series.
Followers of fantasy & speculative fiction should know Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull already. Bull basically invented the genre of urban fantasy with her 1987 War for the Oaks, and Bear has been churning out revolutionary work for the past several years. (Her latest, Chill, is finally out!) Together they are two of the co-creators of Shadow Unit, a free online fiction project that combines an interesting new use of social media for storytelling and some really, really good writing.
Shadow Unit is a little hard to describe, although it makes plenty of sense if you just dive in. (Start with the Getting Started page — the homepage lists the most recent works first.) It’s kind of like a fake TV show: each large installment is an “episode,” and there are deleted scenes posted as “DVD Extras” in between episodes (and sometimes as hidden links within them). At the same time, some of the characters maintain personal blogs on LiveJournal — but the LiveJournals are contemporary with the current date, while the episodes are often dated a year or more in the past, so although the characters don’t discuss plot points explicitly before they happen, these things will influence their conversations (and give readers plenty of hints to drive themselves crazy with while waiting for a new episode).
The Unicorn Evils is one of several novel-length episodes of Shadow Unit, the premiere of the third season, and a stellar example of serial storytelling done well. Over the previous dozen episodes and hundreds of LiveJournal posts we’ve grown attached to these characters, come to know them and feel for their problems, and now they’re beginning to take it all apart. (Both Bear and Bull tend to be horrible to their favorite characters, as you’ll know if you’ve read any of their other work; Shadow Unit is no different.) This isn’t an episode to start with, but it is one to look forward to. While Shadow Unit is a crime procedural (in the spirit of Criminal Minds rather than CSI), and there’s a great deal of grotesque fun in cataloging serial killers, the real heart of the project is the characters. Oh, it’s a terrible cliche to say it, but it’s true — I could care less about the plot of the next episode (I know it’ll be good), but I want to know if Reyes and Chaz are getting along this week, how Sol is taking retirement, how much Daphne’s improved at taking herself seriously in the field.
I know it’s hard for libraries to collect digital works: they don’t go through the same kind of quality control process that print does, and they’re not listed in catalogs or purchasing orders. If a library wanted to start collecting online fiction though, or was just interested in more intense, thoughtful speculative fiction with plenty of racially, sexually and gender-diverse characters, written by award-winning authors, they could do a lot worse than by starting with Shadow Unit.