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Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe

Tor, 2017, 439 p, including 12 p Glossary. Illustrated by David Grove.

 Pirate Freedom cover

This is a book that probably contains all you ever wanted to know about pirates and then more. Not quite a swashbuckling romp – it is too reflective for that, not shying from depicting the downsides of pirate life – it is always highly readable.

It is also a time travel story. Narrator Chris (Crisofóro) was handed over by his father to be brought up in Our Lady of Bethlehem monastery in a post-Communist Cuba. When he left there he somehow or other found himself back in the heyday of the Spanish Empire, got caught up in the piracy trade, eventually becoming adept at it and in charge of several ships. Interpolations into the narrative of his pirate times relate Chris’s thoughts in later life when he is back in the future but not as far as the time he left it. In these interludes he is an ordained priest, given to musing on his past sins, and on God’s forgiveness.

One of his reflections is that, “money is just another way of saying freedom. If you have money you can do pretty much whatever you want to do. (If you do not believe me. Look at the people who have it.) …That is not exactly how it is for pirates … but it is close. And that is why they do it,” another on the ethics of obedience, “A boy who has been taught to be a sheep will not protect himself or anybody else. If he is molested and does not fight, the people who taught him to be a sheep are at least as much to blame as the molester.” In this he, and Wolfe as author, come dangerously close to condoning abuse.

Then we have, “I remembered that America had fought Spain once and freed Cuba.” Freed Cuba, eh? Swapping one empire for another is hardly freedom. That’ll be why they had a revolution sixty years later.

There are some bons mots. Of a man with whom he had dealings Chris says, “D’Ogeron was an honest politician – when you bought him, he stayed bought.” Another pirate captain says, “‘Not all beautiful things are treasures, but all treasures are beautiful.’”

Pirate Freedom is not one of Wolfe’s major works but it passes the time entertainingly enough and may correct some misconceptions about the pirate life.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (several instances,) formast (foremast.)

Clarke Award 2019

I see this year’s winner* of the Arthur C Clarke Award is Rosewater by Tade Thompson.

I’ve not read it but I’ll put it on my to seek list.

*At least it wasn’t the Yoon Ha Lee.

Close Your Eyes by Paul Jessup

Apex Book Company, 2018, 230 p. Reviewed for Interzone 276, Jul-Aug 2018.

Close your Eyes cover

This certainly starts with a bang; to be precise a supernova, in which the star in its death throes somehow impregnates a woman called Ekhi, apparently by means of light. Thereafter she is forced to pilot her own ship after shutting down its AI heart since it goes insane due to entropic breakdown of its programmes. She is found floating, naked, in the ship’s control centre – throughout the book these are named egia – by Mari, Hodei and Sugoi, scavengers from The Good Ship Lollipop. At this early point the text displayed an uncomfortably voyeuristic attitude towards Ekhi, embodied in the character of Hodei, who is also fascinated by a nude model in a stache of magazines he keeps. (Magazines? These digital days?) This fascination is later revealed to be because he has the essence of a woman, Iuski, hidden inside him.

Sugoi is Mari’s (very jealous) lover and resents, to the point of violence, any hint of interest in her by Hodei. Sugoi is a lumbering, almost inarticulate creature. With his propensity for violence it is difficult to see what, for Mari, his attraction might be. Then too, there seems to be little jeopardy. Biological repair organisms named thalna can restore to health a body damaged to a high degree. In a similar way robot-like mozorro keep the egias running “smooth and perfect”. Moreover each character contains within itself systems called patuek which “have the ability to store a mind in stasis and be transplanted into a healed, cloned body”.

The ship’s captain, Itsasu, has a frail withered body tethered to the ship’s control heart near the Ortzadar engine (found on the ruins of a moon) and its “bizarre wisdom culled from centuries of intelligence algorithms evolving and learning and storing information into complex data matrices”. She is on a long, 435 year, quest to find her husband but has kept this from the crew, never explaining “exactly why they wandered the stars, stealing from dead cities and spun-down relics of starships”.

None of these are sympathetic characters, not even Ekhi, who seems to be present only to kick-start the story and incubate the supernova’s child. This problem of empathy is exacerbated by Jessup’s use of short, sometimes one word sentences. This is a technique best used sparingly, rather than being endemic.

Jeopardy does come; in the shape of pirates of a sort whose main weapon seems to be language; “‘We would whisper the word once, just once, and your mind would become a slave to this foreign tongue, this alien thought device.’” “That language is a giant looming inside of my mind. Hunting me.” “With the new language came a new being, a hive mind that commanded each and every one of them.” This enemy is connected with the sakre, which can drive human minds to destruction.

The novel is divided into two “books” titled “Open Your Eyes” and “Close Your Mouth” both with five Acts and separated by an Intermission. The birth of the child of the supernova (“I am Arigia. I am the dreams of humanity, the lands of the stars. I am the coupling between all and everything. I float, I am free. And I sing this ship to life. The port to life. I sing the sorrow song at the end of the universe, at the end of time,”) ends the first section. This seems to presage Arigia’s subsequent importance but she is all but totally absent from Book II wherein a wheelchair bound Isatsu, accompanied by Mari (now turned into a bird,) and Isatsu’s husband Ortzi – or, rather his consciousness contained within a skull – wander a labyrinth loosely drawn from the minotaur legend through a landscape of severed heads, while trying to escape the clutches of a bear-like creature called Basa and his diminutive controller La whose driving force seems to be, “Cover them in words. Take their heads. Fill with eggs.”

It all presents as just a little bonkers. Add in some purple-skinned, elephant-headed creatures for seasoning.

Bonkers is fine, but a human story to hang on to while we’re at it, characters whose fates the reader might care about, would help the medicine go down. If SF ideas for the sake of SF ideas do it for you then give this a go. Those who prefer their senses and sensibilities to be engaged should look elsewhere.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- Written in USian, eg “inside of” (for inside) is littered throughout the text, as is outside of, though there was at least one plain “inside”, shined (shone,) gasses (gases.) Otherwise; sung (sang,) pixilated (pixelated; “pixilated” means drunk, not “blocky in appearance”,) madamoiselle (mademoiselle,) “the sound of the engine became a thundering rush of sounds” (sound….. became …. sounds,) “recording each movement and sending it back” (sending them back,) “and he doesn’t expect me too, either” (expect me to, either,) “kept trying on the shape of names” (shapes,) “had climbed into … and stole away” (stolen away is more natural.) “The only thing preserving his being … were his patuek” (The only thing …was.) “She felt a smile, somehow, hung in her mind” (hang in her mind?) “The eyes were not orbs, but instead flashlights, letting out hot white halos from LED eyes.” (The eyes …. eyes,) “[you] will be discarded of properly” (discarded properly; or, disposed of properly; not “discarded of properly”,) “the heart and the AI where the only things” (were the only things. How on Earth does this “where” for “were” substitution get past i] the writer, ii] any agent involved, iii] a publisher’s reader, iv] the editor?) “her remembered his mother” (he remembered,) “tried to push his cheek back and out its washcloth caress” (and out of,) “with the tip of his toes” (tips.) “His life readings show that his still alive” (he’s still alive,) “near were we need to be” (and now we get the reverse; “were” for “where”,) “a white milky, substance” (a white, milky substance,) ganeeshas(ganeshas,) “with doors along the every facet of the interior” (along every facet,) “Hodei opened door” (opened the door,) “a craggy old fishermen” (fisherman,) “and horded them for itself” (hoarded,) “of the most importance” (utmost?) “it heard a voice sing a solitary voice sing” (take out either ‘a voice’ or ‘a solitary voice’,) “on one the lesser pods” (one of the lesser,) batadur (previously betadur,) crow’s feet (crows’ feet,) “all of her wonderful machines she’d been building” (all of the wonderful machines she’d been building.) “The tenor of the words were true” (The tenor … was true.) Patuek (patuek.) “Sword to help each other” (Sworn makes more sense,) “She saw that flicker of flame tattoos on each of the foreheads” (that flicker of flame tattoo,) shrunk (shrank.) “The profound of absurdity of our very existence” (The profound absurdity of our,) “we watched thirteen suns float through and endless sea of night” (an endless sea,) encoves ….. “on a raised dais where the reprogrammed dolls” (Here it is again; were the reprogrammed dolls,) “all I found where your doubles” (and again: were,) a missing question mark (x3,) Mozorro (elsewhere mozorro,) their epidermis (their; therefore epidermises,) super nova (supernova,) “a room that was on large tank” (one large tank,) “waiting to be woke into” (woken,) “It always changed when they go on the hunt” (when they went on the hunt,) “And where they more her than she was?” (once more; were,) “through the infinite of space and time” (infinity,) sat (seated; or, sitting,) “The pain one’s experiences” (the pain of one’s experiences; or, the pain one experiences,) “This ship was filled with the most flammable object known to humankind. Oxygen.” (That “object” ought to be “substance”. And oxygen isn’t flammable. It’s the agent that causes flame,) damnit (elsewhere dammit,) “a thought eeked out” (eked? Leaked?) “with these cluster of doubles” (this cluster; or, these clusters,) ‘Can you use to revive him?’ (use it,) “full of explosive oxygen” (oxygen isn’t explosive; in its presence other substances may be.)

Evolution by Stephen Baxter

Grafton, 2003, 766 p.

 Evolution  cover

You can’t fault Baxter for ambition. This is potentially a daunting undertaking, to tell the story of human evolution – from those first small, nocturnal mammals scrabbling about under the feet of the dinosaurs all the way through modern Homo Sapiens to its far future descendants – via incidents from the imagined lives of individuals living at possibly pivotal moments in that great chain. It wouldn’t have been an easy task for anyone.

The story is told in three sections Ancestors, Humans, and Descendants, topped and tailed by a Prologue and Epilogue and interrupted by an Interlude between sections One and Two. There is a further episode set in the same time as these three framing passages though it is included as the last chapter in Section Two.

By its nature the narrative of Evolution tends to the episodic and that, for a novel, can be a problem. The reader is no sooner taken into the lives of our various protagonists than is brought out again, hurrying onward ever onward, usually leaping millions of years, jumping from habitat to habitat. But that, of course, is evolution. Our own experience of life, of story, is not even a blink in those terms.

The early chapters – set in the days immediately before the impact of the Chicxulub meteor (Baxter has it as a comet, with its huge “Devil’s Tail” spanning across the sky in its approach) – can at times read as the transcript of a lecture on palæobiology. Baxter has clearly done a power of research (and of course without that his story would have been much the poorer) but the way he introduces some of the creatures is usually not novelistic. Then there are the information dumping paragraphs describing the geological processes altering the animals’ environments and the Earth’s climate: necessary to the overall picture, but again not novelistic.

The influence of Richard Dawkins on the author’s vision is perhaps evident in the importance Baxter gives to sex, the passing on of genes, in the motivations and actions of his ‘characters’. There is a persistent insistence on the compartmentalisation of early primates’ brains. The beginnings of religion are described as an attempt to make sense of the forces shaping the world via a new way of thinking. The importance of food scarcities on the development of certain human behaviours is noted. By contrast the effect of the beginnings of agriculture on the health of human teeth (not good, the grit in the resultant bread from the grinding of the wheat between stones wearing them away) and of nutritional health more generally (lack of dietary diversity leading to deficiency disease, stunted growth) is almost a throwaway. But ‘civilisation’ lies this way. And its fall is due to the same impersonal forces of nature as did for the dinosaurs, though with a different mechanism. (Sixteen years on such a natural cause need not necessarily be looked to. As a species many of us still seem inclined to blindness to our own possible contribution to a mass extinction event.)

So; does it work? The book is an intellectual undertaking but not on a Stapledonian scale. A lot of the scenarios while differing in detail tend to the similar in their outline; ancestors, humans, or descendants encountering some new phenomenon, species, or climatic pressure. Baxter’s strengths as a storyteller lie in this sphere rather than in characterisation. His protagonists and those with whom they come into conflict are in this case too pragmatically designed to fulfil the niches assigned to them to fully come alive. Some of the future scenes also seemed to owe more than a little to H G Wells. (Baxter has of course since written a sequel to War of the Worlds.) As an introduction to the convoluted history of human evolution, though, this is a good starting place even if more recent discoveries have rendered it slightly out of date.

Pedant’s corner:- Written with USian spellings. Otherwise; “The smoke from the volcano” (we’ve previously been told that the smoke was due to forest fires,) “like an featherless” (a featherless,) “his clan were gone: (was gone,) “forever looking over their shoulder” (shoulders,) “was a kind of primates” (a kind of primate,) a missing full stop, auroras (aurorae,) “the laellyn group were overcome” (the group was overcome.) “But Capo’s troop were responding” (Capo’s troop was responding,) “‘one group of experimenters were’”” (one group was – but this was in dialogue,) “in the shape of their backs, skulls, trunks” (in the shapes of their backs, skulls, trunks,) epicentre (centre,) “Dust had already laid down by the fire” (lain down,) fitted (despite, earlier – and later – the USian form of the preterite, fit,) “just as his spear had flow” (had flown,) tepee-style (tepee-style,) a missing full stop, “where the sun was staring to set” (starting,) “that was why there was so many of them” (there were so many of them,) “raised to shoulder, height above the ground” (no comma after shoulder.) “It took Hononus and Athalaric many weeks reach Jordan” (It took Honorius and Athalaric many weeks to reach Jordan,) Neandertal (is this a USian spelling of Neanderthal?) A sentence lacking a name – or pronoun – as its subject (on page 671,) “for these pits were mouths. These deadly maws” (maws are not mouths. They are stomachs.)

Latest from Interzone

 This Is How You Lose the Time War cover

It’s that time again.

I’m awaiting the arrival of Interzone 282, not least to find out if I’ll have two reviews in it. It seems ages ago I sent off my review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders, and I did the same for Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett not long after.

Still a new book has arrived for review (to appear in Interzone 283?)

This is a collaboration between Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone and is titled This Is How You Lose the Time War.

Should be fun.

Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock

47 North, 2017, 219 p.

This was on the short list for the BSFA Award last year and subsequently won the Clarke Award.

 Dreams Before the Start of Time cover

It is, however, less of a novel than a series of vignettes featuring characters with some sort of relationship to each other but unfolding over a timescale of 83 years starting in 2034. The one big change to society involved in all this is the advent of technology to nurture human fœtuses outside the womb and to tweak the genetic composition of embryos for desired traits. The slow evolution of approved standards of child gestation into outright disapproval of the natural process – how can you be so uncaring of your child’s welfare as to carry it yourself? – is well served by the form of the narrative; it comes on us gradually, as the attitude would. The choice is not, however, so easy if you lack the resources to purchase the services and provides another stick with which to beat the poor, to go along with all the traditional ones.

As a Science Fictional thought experiment this is almost text book; consequences of a change thought out and demonstrated. I can see why it has garnered the acclaim it did. As a novel it’s less so, though, coming over as bitty and too pat. Moreover I wasn’t convinced by the implied background. Even in 2120 daily life in Dreams Before the Start of Time doesn’t appear to be very different from that in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps this appears so because most of the characters are well-to-do, or at least comfortably off. Charnock writes well, though. The book is never less than readable and in places surpasses that.

Pedant’s corner:- practiced (practised.)

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

Grafton, 1993, 395 p.

Ammonite cover

There is a well-established trope in children’s literature whereby the parents must be got rid of (benignly or otherwise) in order for the protagonist to have the scope for the adventure the book will describe. Ammonite has what I assume is a feminist variant on this device, which is to remove men, rather than parents, from the equation. Nothing wrong with that. This is SF after all. Thought experiments are more or less mandatory.

The newly rediscovered Grenchstom’s Planet – shortened to GP, or Jeep – has begun to be exploited by the Company only for it to find that a virus is endemic; a virus which kills all men but only a percentage of women. Jeep is thus quarantined and the surviving Company women stuck down there. Nevertheless the earlier human inhabitants, now of course all women, are able to have children and have been present on Jeep for many generations. This parthenogenetic ability is somehow linked to the virus.

Our main narrative viewpoint character Marghe (Marguerite Angelica Taishan,) has been given an experimental vaccine against the virus – which she has to take every day* – and sent to the planet’s surface, knowing if it fails she may die or would in the best case never return to Earth as the Company will most likely pull the plug on its venture and leave its employees to their fates. Other scenes are presented from the viewpoint of Commander Danner, head of the Company’s base at Port Central.

Marghe’s explorations amongst the natives lead to her capture by a particular clan. Here she learns some of the ways and beliefs of the inhabitants but realises they are slowly declining and dying out. As a result a kind of death cult begins to flourish and a tribal war breaks out. Marghe seizes the chance to escape and makes her way in the middle of a harsh winter to seek refuge at another outpost, almost dying as a result, but is rescued by another native tribe. Meanwhile Commander Danner is exercised by the problems of surviving on Jeep and the presence in her charges of those excessively loyal to the Company.

Marghe’s relationships with her rescuers lead her to develop an ability known as deepsearch which connects the natives to their pasts and, if undertaken with a companion, allows conception. Children simultaneously engendered in this way are known as soestres.

Whatever Griffiths’s intentions were on writing Ammonite the interactions between her characters are recognisably the same as in any other SF novel; indeed any other novel. We have goodies and baddies, conflicts, betrayals, loves, endurance, but the final battle is averted through dialogue.

I remember Ammonite being well received when it was first published but didn’t get round to it then. The years since may perhaps have been unkind to it as it no longer reads as being particularly distinctive. For example the planetary wanderings and the contrast between the “civilised” newcomers and older inhabitants reminded me of Avram Davidson’s Rork! which I read a few weeks ago. (There are, though, only a few variations on a theme.)

Pedant’s corner:- *I’m not sure vaccines actually work that way. An occasional booster – perhaps only once – to replenish the immune response, yes; but not a continual daily dose. “Accompanying them were a contingent” (was a contingent,) “They all wore scarves wrapped around their nose and mouth” (noses and mouths.) “Drink lots a of fluids” (‘Drink a lot of’. Or. ‘Drink lots of’. Not ‘Drink lots a of’.) Llangelli (Llanelli?) “the triple handful of riders were returning” (the triple handful …. was returning,) “perhaps she should talk to these two again some time” (this two,) Dogias’ (Dogias’s,) “a thumbs up…. That gesture had travelled to this world all the way from ancient Rome,” (true, but in ancient Rome it signified death, not approval,) “where people ate and breathed and relived themselves” (‘relieved themselves’ makes more sense.) “The less personnel risked, the better” (the fewer personnel,) Cardos’ (Cardos’s,) Huelis’ (Huelis’s,) “one less softgel than there had been” (one fewer softgel,) “another group of six were struggling” (strictly, a group was struggling,) “port Central” (otherwise always ‘Port Central’,) “to wipe the sweat from their brow” (brows,) “Fuller’s earth” (I believe it’s Fuller’s Earth.) There were a few uneasy glances” (a few is actually singular, grammatically,) “‘I nearly gave up, laid down and died’” (lay down and died.)

Moving Moosevan by Jane Palmer

The Women’s Press, 1990, 152 p

 Moving Moosevan cover

Perhaps it was my familiarity with the central premise and the tone, or that the setting has moved mainly to Earth in this sequel to The Planet Dweller but I found myself much less irritated with this book than that one, more willing to go with the flow. (Palmer is trying to send up the SF genre here and I generally find SF and humour don’t mix well.)

Moosevan, who it was established in the previous book lives inside planets, has taken up residence in Earth. Her adversaries The Mott have found a way to break through the barrier preventing pursuit and are intent on mayhem.

Moosevan herself is rather missing from the narrative, revealed only by her actions – of which beginning to move Britain and Ireland south towards the equator is only the most obvious. Most of the talk and action (which tends to be of the relentless sort but rather cartoonish) revolve around the human and alien characters but none of these ever really rises above caricature. Palmer’s technique is very broad brush indeed. There are occasional grace notes which might still jar (not many SF novels of the time mentioned Maggie Thatcher, Bert Kaempfert or acid house parties) but also the odd phrase grounding the narrative. “There had to be better causes for which to ladder your tights.”

Moving Moosevan is light reading. It has its place.

Pedant’s corner:- for goodness’ sake (if the apostrophe is there it ought to be followed by a further ‘s’, goodness’s, otherwise leave it out,) “for them to secure their grip” (them and their, therefore ‘grips’,) “wild creatures … must have been holding their breath” (breaths,) “tried to diffuse the argument with a hollow chuckle” (defuse, that would be,) “a network of thinking metal units were working (a network .. was working,) “‘this planet it about to sneeze’” (is about to sneeze.) “A pile of Ordnance Survey maps were stacked” (a pile … was stacked.) “‘There are a number of species’” (strictly, there is a number of species,) “that the army …. were still trying to” (that the army … was still trying to,) “none of the group were too sure” (none .. was too sure,) “Yat knew that the terrible trio were back” (the terrible trio was back.)

2019 Clarke Award Shortlist

I see the short list for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award has been announced. I missed it at the time as I was away.

The list is:-

Semiosis by Sue Burke (HarperVoyager)
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Oneworld)
The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag (Simon & Schuster)
Rosewater by Tade Thompson (Orbit)
The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)

I’ve read none of them but note the Tade Thompson was on the BSFA Award list this year (despite doubts as to its eligibility – which would apply equally to the Clarke Award I’d have thought.)

Also on both lists is the Yoon Ha Lee. Having read his Ninefox Gambit I have to say I’m depressed by this.

Daughter of Elysium by Joan Slonczewski

Avonova, 1994, 525 p.

 Daughter of Elysium cover

Raincloud Windclan is from the planet of Bronze Sky where women are called goddesses, and have the dominant role in society. She has come to Elysium with her family to avert a confrontation between its inhabitants and the apparently aggressive planet of Urulan. Elysium is a city established on the water-world of Shora but separate from the raft dwellers of that world familiar from Slonczewski’s previous novel A Door into Ocean. Raincloud’s husband Blackbear is a scientist set to investigate the possibilities of restoring fertility to Elysians, whose “children” – known as shonlings from the crèche-like shons where they are brought up – are artificially generated since Elysians’ longevity treatment has modified their chromosomal DNA and conferred sterility. By treaty with the Shorans, though, the numbers of Elysians are meant to be kept steady.

Elysian society is attended to by genetically modified creatures known as sims, and artificially intelligent servants much given to intoning, “Please refer any fault to…”

There are, then, several conflicts built into this scenario as well as, in the persons of the Blue Skyans, a contrast with the gender norms of the time when Slonczewski was writing. Raincloud is an adept practitioner of martial arts, which gives her honorary male status in the eyes of the Urulite Ambassador to Elysium. Later, on Urulan itself, subjected to an attempt to murder her companions she muses, “Men were supposed to be wholesome nurturing creatures, not predators.”

While it is gratifying to a Chemistry graduate like myself to read of acetyl and methyl groups and glucosamine in an SF novel and there is a concentration on domestic life usually absent in such genre works this one is marred by excessive information dumping. Another flaw is that we don’t meet the indigenous inhabitants of Shora till well through the book. The enmeshing of all the elements of the set-up into the plot and its resolution is well-done though.

Pedant’s corner:- dumfounded (dumbfounded.) “Did not ‘death’ equate ‘shame’ in the Urulite tongue?” (equate with,) unsubstantially (insubstantially.) “Her breasts peeped out cheerfully beyond her bare back and shoulders,” (is some anatomical feat,) nanomanipulaters (nanomanipulators.) “What would Public Safety think, he wondered” (needs a question mark,) “either she was growing up – or just saving her spit” (??? Is this a USian phrase?) syllabi (I prefer syllabuses, it’s not originally from Latin.) “His chest was crossed with ropes of milky gems set in good Blackbear stared” (???? ‘… set in gold’ and a missing full stop?) “A number of long-necked reporter servos were on hand” (a number … was on hand,) “until the Gathering sent their messengers” (until the Gathering sent its messengers.) “Raincloud though it very likely” (thought it,) “took things in stride” (in her stride, please,) “‘except prone’” (the context demanded ‘supine’, not ‘prone’,) “who had woken at last and began to wail” (the ‘had’ carries over, so ‘who had woken at last and begun to wail’,) “‘none of the worlds we deal with are as safe as Elysium’” (none is as safe.) “None of the Guardians were allowed to leave” (none of the Guardians was allowed to leave.) “None significant were found.” (None significant was found.)

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