Archive for January, 2010

Wireless by Charles Stross

January 27, 2010 Leave a comment

There are many reasons why publishers release books into the market but, being profit-motivated, the thought uppermost in everyone’s mind is usually the generation of more moolah. In this endeavour, it helps if the author already has an established fan base that, when given warning of the impending launch of another masterpiece, will rush all slavering to the nearest bookshop to purchase said tome. For those of a less fannish disposition, it helps if the book is actually worth reading. Although, when you look at the success of authors like James Patterson (and his team writers), the ability to write coherent English in an intelligent narrative pursuit is not a prerequisite of success.

In this case, we have what, for some authors, is the collection no-one wants to talk about. The modern trend is for people to establish themselves as novelists and, if they do work at the shorter end of the spectrum, they keep quiet about it. This reverses the publishing model which started with the majority of authors building reputations in magazines and only later moving on to novels (which were, by modern standards, little more than novella length). So, the majority of publishers mute the fanfare when a collection emerges. This is a distraction from novels (particularly those in a series) which represent the main milk-cows. Well, this starts exceptionally well. “Missile Gap” is a wonderful reworking of the cold-war mentality story set in a gonzo science context. The idea of human civilisation being transplanted to a disk where, in the literal sense, it sinks or swims, is quite simply delightful. This is Stross on top of his game with an ingenious twist on Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen Versus the Ants” thrown in for good measure. Similarly, “Rogue Farm” is another delightful idea and, not wanting to strain the suspension of disbelief too far, comes in far shorter with self-discipline in full control.

We then come to the first of the Lovecraftian stories. Now let’s start off with the required statement of prejudice. I’m a big fan of Lovecraft done well. I first came across the source author back in the 1960s and have studiously followed most of the professional work in the “universe” he and the other writers have conspired to create. “A Colder War” reruns the theme of “Missile Gap” but, by introducing an alternate history, gives us Oliver North running covert ops involving elder technology. Again, it’s a good idea and, with touches of humour, just about manages to hold up. But it’s a little diffuse, as if Stross could not quite decide whether this was to be a little guy caught up in a big machine story (as in the Laundry style) or full-blown Lovecraftian epic. “Maxos”, originally published in Nature, is an elegant joke which serves as a punctuation mark before Bob Howard makes his appearance in “Down on the Farm”. This is again Stross at his best with Bob struggling with Laundry bureaucracy and incidentally overcoming a power-crazed entity. Bob is a wonderfully modest and self-effacing protagonist who, despite being occasionally trapped in stories too long for his own good, always seems to emerge from cosmic confrontation with nothing more serious than an interminable set of report forms to complete.

Collaborations are often an embarrassment as the author with the idea fights with the collaborator on how to write it down. Egos can be brittle and fragile. Results can be patchy and indifferent. All of which heralds a genuine success in “Unwirer”. Here Stross teams up with Cory Doctorow to produce a lean and muscular story about the infrastructure to support the internet. This has everything from investigative journalism, the natural paranoia of subversives to the agents provocateurs of a repressive regime. The whole is neatly wrapped in an action-packed format and served in cohesive style.

If the collection had ended here, it would have been declared a triumph. Unfortunately, publishers tend to think in bigger scale these days. It’s no longer considered acceptable to offer the 192-page format so beloved of typesetters when I was no more than a sprog at my mother’s knee. The mythology is that buyers today will only shell out for bigger books. This forces the inclusion of padding. The first is a “long spoon” story in which the Devil is out-eviled by a drunken Scot. It has the virtue of being mercifully short — something that cannot be said about the last two entries. As I have commented in another review on this site, I am not averse to pastiche. If you know and love the original, it can be interesting to see someone having fun with the style. Occasionally, it works brilliantly at length. I grew up with the books by Dornford Yates so Tom Sharpe’s Indecent Exposure, sequel to the magnificent Riotous Assembly, is a double delight. What more could anyone ask than for a writer of rare talent to take themes and style from a revered source and then elevate them to new levels of absurdity. This is not to say that P.G. Wodehouse cannot be lifted to new heights. Lurking in the midst of the period dross, there are some good story ideas. But trying to reboot Jeeves into interplanetary hobnobbing is never going to be a success for me. As Stross himself comments in an afterword, “Humor is hard.” I might have stayed patient at two- to three-thousand words. This length is disastrously tedious for a one-trick pony. Which, sadly, brings us to “Palimpsest” which should either have stayed in his bottom drawer or been subjected to serious editing to reduce it to a bearable length. As it is, this is a very clever idea, but the execution is just endlessly boring.*

So there you have it. Good in parts, excellent in others, and then it runs out of steam and dies. Worth looking at if you are already a Stross fan. Otherwise, the price of the hardback outweighs the quality.

For the other reviews of books by Charles Stross, see:
The Apocalypse Codex,
The Fuller Memorandum
Neptune Brood
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens,

*With some degree of amusement, I note that “Palimpsest” won the Best Novelette Award at this year’s Hugo ceremony held 2-6 September at Aussiecon 4. Obviously, my chaffing from wheat needs more practice on the threshing.

Other Earths edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake

January 23, 2010 1 comment

Like many before them, the editors decided they preferred a unifying trope for the anthology. They gave it thought and came up with alternate history. Pausing at this moment, I confess very fond memories for Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, Keith Roberts’ Pavane, and others of that ilk. There is something fascinating about posing and answering the “what ifs”. Except these editors, having picked the trope, then decided to challenge their authors to bust the boundaries and write something “. . .where the shift of history was something else entirely”. In other words, the authors were commissioned to write stories only tangentially connected with the notion of an alternate history. The plots could be anything from horror to science fiction. This is like announcing a Sherlock Holmes anthology and the first story has him downloaded as an AI program into a robot to catch another robot that is running a simulation of Professor Moriarty and responsible for a crime wave on the Moon. Actually, I have some vague recollection of reading or viewing something along those lines — readers with better memories than I, please remind me what that story is (was it an animated episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Fast Forward?).

As to the stories admitted between the covers, we start with a fascinatingly cruel reimagining of what might have happened to resolve the conflict between the North and the South. Robert Charles Wilson in “This Peaceable Land” cleaves to the trope more than others and shows what solution might have been applied had there been no war to abolish slavery. In every respect this is a powerful if disturbing alternate. In the literal sense, there is a horrific possibility that he might be right and, having given us all food for thought, we move on to “The Goat Variations” by Jeff VanderMeer. This is a brave story. Not many US authors have had the confidence to write 9/11 stories so, kudos to Jeff for taking it on. For those of you not up on the lore of the day, President Bush continued reading The Pet Goat to an elementary school class for some seven minutes after being informed of the attacks. Thematically, this is a multiverse story where multiple Presidents in parallel universes face an incredible range of different catastrophes on the same day — I love the idea of the Ecstatics and their god-missiles. Structurally, I am not sure that it all hangs together, but it is such an edgy attempt, it definitely deserves to be included.

Stephen Baxter’s “The Unblinking Eye” is another clever story. He postulates that the southern hemisphere achieved true scientific civilisation while Europe remained little better than the Dark Ages. You may note that I declined reference to Enlightenment because, despite their scientific progress, the Incas seem unenlightened. They come bearing decorative devices with the destructive power of atomic bombs and quietly place them in the capital cities of the North. Local leaders are flattered by these gifts and, not understanding their threatening nature, accept them and, perhaps, venerate them.

We then hit a roadblock. “Csilla’s Story” by Theodora Goss is one of the more turgid piece of fiction I have laboured through over the last few years. It has a not uninteresting premise: that there is reality in the mythology of dryads or nymphs of the woods. Or, perhaps, this particular group of women has some fairy in them. Frankly, it was just too self-obsessed, telling and retelling the stories representing the oral history of these women and, while I am completely sympathetic to the semiotic need for people to seek the preservation of the meaning in their lives, I prefer it about half the length presented here. By a curious editorial irony, we then have a model of how to write a short story about fairy magic. I see absolutely no connection between Liz Williams’ “Winterborn” and alternate history, but it is a very successful story. This is less florid than some of her other short fiction involving the use of magic and it is the better for being leaner.

Taking them slightly out of order, we then have two different World War II stories. The first by Gene Wolfe is a slightly pedestrian alternate in which Britain falls to the Nazis, and Alastair Reynolds has a haunting tale of an alternate Britain in which the protagonists have the same names but are subtly different from their real world originals. Wolf’s “Donovan Sent Us” has OSS operatives parachuting into occupied London for a dangerous undercover operation. Reynold’s “The Receivers” has a wonderful Heath Robinson approach to detecting incoming German aircraft and a delightful possibility of other sounds being picked up out of the aether. As an aside, I recall operators at the Lovell Telescope being able to pick up conversations from miles away. Although I admire the central conceit of Wolf’s story, I found the whole less than impressive. Had it been an attempt at humour, I might de cod cherman accents haf enjoy. But I remember reading comics in the 1950s and 60s where the German in the bubbles was more convincing. Frankly, any author who resorts to imitating foreign accents in stories like this has no confidence in the readers’ ability to “hear” the uses of different languages in context. Reynolds, on the other hand, offers an interesting piece for a “young” writer. He is playing around with the life histories of several people probably completely unknown to the modern generation of readers. I loved its darkly melancholic exploration of why some artists are driven to practice their art. Whether its message will be understood by the majority of readers is debatable so, in their decision to include this story, I give high praise to the editors.

The two war stories sandwich a pleasingly wry tale about life on the ‘gator farm. Greg van Eekhout tells a mean story of religious rectitude in “The Holy City and Em’s Reptile Farm” where a thief with “pure” motives comes through an ordeal like Daniel in the lions’ den and is able to bring the Pilgrims back to the farm. Paul Park’s “A Family History”, partly written as a series of auction prizes on eBay, is a slightly strange dalliance. Albeit for nonsexual purposes, this is a writer being playful, toying with his readers as a man essential to maintain the family’s lineage survives an encounter with a “savage” because of his earlier meeting with a flute-playing dryad.

All of which leads us to “Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life” by Lucius Shepard. This is the reason why you should buy this book. No matter how you look at it, this must be rated as one of the best novellas of the year. We are back in a variation on the multiverse theme where multiple versions of the same character are all drawn to a particular place down the Mekong River. The journey itself and ultimate explanation of why they are drawn to make it are riveting fiction. Intellectually, it is among the most satisfying pieces of fiction I remember reading for some time. I was faintly surprised this was not the final story in the anthology. For some reason not entirely clear to me, the editors felt the need for one more entry into the lists. Except this is rather more a short disquisition than fiction as Benjamin Rosenbaum offers us something slightly more substantial than a powerpoint catalogue of thoughts about alternate history.

Overall, this paperback anthology is sensationally good value and definitely worth buying.

For my other reviews of Lucius Shepard, see: Louisiana Breakdown, Two Trains Running, Vacancy and Ariel and The Taborin Scale.

For a review of another anthology edited by Nick Gevers, see Is Anybody Out There?

For books written by Jay Lake see:
The Sky That Wraps.

Eclipse Two edited by Jonathan Strahan

January 21, 2010 Leave a comment

As you would expect from the title, this is the second in the anthology series entitled Eclipse (Night Shade Books). We start off with “The Hero” by Karl Schroeder which poses an interesting question. If you recognise the need for action to save your universe, just how far will you go? Of course, the talk of universes is all part-and-parcel of the game sf writers play. It’s all a matter of scale. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you live in a village perched precipitously on top of a cliff. From this vantage point, you can see an approaching danger. Would you risk climbing down the cliff to deliver a warning to the people living below? They are completely vulnerable unless they take action. You recognise that people tend not to take warnings seriously unless your actions demonstrate the seriousness of the threat. You must therefore be seen to make the climb even though no-one in living memory has ever survived.

A cynic might suggest that risking death for others is never going to pay dividends. Stephen Baxter in “Turing’s Apples” retreads Fred Hoyle’s excellent A for Andromeda. It’s the dilemma of one world when it receives a signal, probably containing computer code, from another world. Do you trust the motives of the aliens with the technology to send you the message? Baxter’s hero decides the probable benefits outweigh the risks and starts the process without government approval. A panicking world then tries to put the genie back in the bottle.

Ken Scholes “Invisible Empire of Ascending Light” is one of the stand-out stories. The Empire is founded on a version of the divine right of kings. In an era when the ruler is expected to reincarnate to continue leading, the noble families plot to continue ruling through a Regency. The plan is simple. When the current Emperor begins to fail both physically and mentally, they exploit technology to keep the him alive. Just in case he is somehow able to reincarnate while not technically dead, they also devise a search system designed never to find any newly reincarnated ruler. The Missionary General tasked with evaluating possible cases of reincarnation travels to meet a new candidate, and finds herself with a pivotal decision. Appropriately, the next story by Paul Cornell is a mirror image to the notion of reincarnation. If you had the technology and the storage space, would you download the personality of your drowning friend? If you did, would the resulting file still be your friend or just so much code? Ah, Turing has so much to answer for.

We then come to a story by Margo Lanagan called “Night of the Firstlings”. There seems to be quite a stir amongst the tastesetters with many influential voices hailing her as the best thing to come out of Australia since kangaroo meat was exported as high in protein and low in fat.* Frankly, having now read four or five of her short stories, I remain unconvinced. This outing is a post-apocalypse tale of a diminishing group trying to stay ahead of plague and floods. I find it uninvolving. I did not care whether any of them survived. Equally, Nancy Kress’ story of a group of people trapped in a hospital elevator left me cold.

We are then back on the straight and narrow. In “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm”, Daryl Gregory offers a delightfully judged excursion into a weird, steam punk, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow conflict between monster robots and the invincible ruler, Lord Grimm. In the midst of a preemptive strike by the robots, the local people suffer losses, but emerge with the will to rebuild weapons to offer “real” resistance against next strike. All I can say about Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” is that, as we have all come to expect from this writer, this is yet another tour de force. For once, the decision by the “hero” to perform surgery upon himself was not as scary as it might first have appeared. Then David Moles takes us into a posthuman world where some of the living lie sleeping on life support while their minds explore simulated realities. In “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” we have an intelligent view of the ideas underlying the deeply annoying Matrix franchise.

Peter S. Beagle then delivers our third, if somewhat incongruous, delight. “The Rabbi’s Hobby” is a wonderfully delicate supernatural tale. Yet finding it in the midst of space opera and more exotic fantasies is somewhat strange. Although I have no complaints at the editor’s eclectic eye — it’s always a pleasure to read a new story by Beagle — it does make the anthology rather more mixed in genres than others. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Seventh Expression of the Robot General” takes us back to the wry world of steam punkish robotics. Once the battles are over, the now redundant General first contemplates suicide and then recognises this self-sacrifice may allow his technology to fall into the wrong hands. In “Skin Deep”, Richard Parks offers us Avatar in a world of magic — a witch with the ability to slip into different bodies could be a handyman to help, or a soldier to protect, the local villagers. Tony Daniel gets caught up in his own ontology with “Ex Cathedra”, a somewhat strange variation on time travel paradoxes, while the reliable Terry Dowling returns to the Wormwood cycle with “Truth Window: A Tale of the Bedlam Rose”. This leaves us with “Fury” by Alastair Reynolds. In a Kutnerish Empire of forts and castles, the chief of security tracks down an assassin who threatened the life of his Emperor. This offers a clever counterpoint to Ken Scholes’ story of empire and completes a fine piece of work by the editor.

Although this is not a themed anthology as such, there is a certain consistency in the authors’ concerns. Each of the main protagonists, no matter whether heroic in the classical sense of the word, must confront a previously unrecognised truth and come to terms with it. In some cases, Empires tremble and fall. In others, they come to terms with themselves as individuals. But, overall, the central trope seems to be one of transformation. Anyone may take on the trappings of others, i.e. put on or grow into a different body. This presupposes the new bodies fit without dominating the new wearer. So does the witch become the warrior if she wears him too long, is the boy the same after the bar mitzvah, is the only “true hero” a “dead hero”, and so on? And what happens to this artificial enhancement after the human wearer sheds it? Perhaps, in some small way, this captures a basic truth about what makes a good story. The characters must engage your interest and the development of the narrative must make you care how it ends. With only two exceptions, this anthology succeeds, making an above average book which I unhesitatingly recommend.

For the next two books in the series, see Eclipse Three and Eclipse Four. There’s also a new website, Eclipse Online.

For the record, “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang won the Hugo Award 2009 for Best Short Story.

*Edited to change the reference from ostrich to kangaroo to avoid the implication that the bird was indigenous to Australia.

FTC Declaration

January 11, 2010 Leave a comment

In the midst of the confusion of blogs competing for your attention, a single voice of authority has briefly cut through the maelstrom.

As from the 1st December 2009, in USA, did FTC a stately revised guide decree. It seems there is a critical mass of gullible people out there in the real world who, coming all innocent and naive into the blogosphere, may be deceived by fake endorsements and testimonials. To protect them, the FTC requires disclosures (for the sake of completeness, here is the full text for those who find sleep elusive — as a cure for insomnia, this is better than Ambien).

Well, for anyone out there who worries or cares about such things, my original policy was to review the books I paid for out of my hard-earned dollars. This freed me from any sense of responsibility to write only good things about books given to me for my opinion. However, since these early days, there has been a change. I am now joining the team of reviewers at the San Francisco and Sacramento Book Reviews:

and have started what is intended to become a regular column on trends in publishing and the book trade. Here is the first column:

The Critical Eye

I have also accepted other books for review purposes — as and when those reviews appear, they will be clearly marked. I have made it clear to those who submit books to me that I will always offer an honest opinion about what I read. It seems they are prepared to take the risk.

For the record, I currently buy through the reliable Mark and Cindy at Ziesing Books who take my orders and, courtesy of M-Bags, send the books winging their way over to me. This is a change from Wrigley Cross Books who have now stopped selling new books. Their penultimate M-Bag sending broke every land speed record by taking more than three months to reach me. In the spirit of the excellent novelette by Stephen King, “Mrs Todd’s Shortcut”, it was as if the bag temporarily entered a parallel universe where it made progress in my direction, but wholly unobserved by the postal authorities at the sending or receiving ends. The drawback being that this diversion left me feeling angry, frustrated and, unlike Mrs Todd, older. I was therefore forced to find other ways of passing the time and lost my “reading rhythm”. Normally, I look to read at least two books every week. Having run out of anything new to read, I resorted to different activities, catching up on the latest animes, enjoying the over-the-top Chinese kung-fu adventures (see The Young Warriors) and revelling in the excessively sentimental Korean dramas (see Boys Over Flowers, Iljimae). As the last post demonstrates, I was also briefly tempted back into the cinema for Avatar and now for Iron Man 2. For once believing the hype, these seemed to be events worthy of my time.

With any luck, I should have the time available to restart reading as the various serials unwind. For those of you not into these dramas, they routinely run to forty or fifty episodes. This is months of commitment to see things through to the end. It makes quite a pleasant change to have one’s life dominated by the small screen for a while. Books will always be my first love but, having been born into a world without television — we bought our first set in 1953 so we could watch the Coronation — I still find the personal experience of watching a serial fascinating. I suspect the younger generations who have grown up surrounded by visual media are more blasé. Over-familiarity tends to breed contempt. The first reviews when I resume will therefore tend to be collections and anthologies as I fit the reading around the television (and do the occasional piece of work as well). Excitingly, there may be more traffic because of Alpha Inventions. We’ll see.

Categories: FTC Declation

Avatar (2009)

January 10, 2010 3 comments

I have just seen the new billion-dollar epic by James Cameron. Avatar (2009) has now joined Titanic. They are officially the two biggest grossing films of all time (ignoring inflation). It seems Cameron has a magic touch when it comes to extracting money from paying audiences. A number of adjectives float through the mind, but the most appropriate is probably “magical” (as a reference to its visual qualities and not the additional cost of seeing it in 3D). I remember vividly going to a demonstration of 3D as one of the acts in a musical hall in Newcastle in 1952. In between the comics and singers, we all reverently joined Dr. Strabismus (Whom God Preserve) of Utrecht and balanced these somewhat incongruous cardboard spectacles on our noses. This invited us into a world of novelty, ducking and weaving as various objects were (seen to be) thrown at us from the stage. Rather like travelling down to London for the Festival of Britain, we had a sense that, despite all the bomb devastation surrounding us as a continuing reminder of the War, the future was going to be a miraculous place. Except there was constant disappointment in the offing. Living in a sleepy little town on the North East coast of England, we had a local cinema that showed a steady diet of horror and sci-fi films, some of which were filmed in 3D. But, because the technology to show them was never installed, the best we could do was to guess how much more frightening Vincent Price could be. In fact, I have no recollection of seeing anything in 3D until venturing back into the cinema to see Avatar. It seems the miracle of the future takes its own time about appearing.

I can only marvel at the extent of the progress made in fifty years. The experience of finally seeing depth of field on, and as an extension to, the screen was modestly remarkable. Some of the trompe l’oeil effects were subtle and crept up on you as a watcher involved in the narrative, pausing every now and again to note that the perspective was being enhanced through the fourth wall. If only the narrative itself could have matched the imagination of the visual effects.

Just about every possible cliché and then some have been cobbled together as the plot of this pretentious rubbish. This is every Edenic stereotype ecosystem and culture you could hope to find in a single place with an all-powerful Gaia prepared to be the deus ex machina on demand if too many of the local life forms are losing out to the military muscle of Earth’s forces. So many sources have been mined for ideas from Poul Anderson to Lloyd Biggle to Ursula K. Le Guin with the latter’s The Word for World Is Forest probably the closest match. This planet is a source of Unobtanium — every film has to have a McGuffin and there’s no reason why it should have anything other than an ironic name — and Earth’s rapacious industrial-military complex is not going to let some tree-hugging bunch of indigenous primitives stand in its way of obtaining all they want and need.

So we are suddenly pitched into the worst of the Apocalypse Now style of film where military pragmatism in the means of superior fire power becomes a symptom of insanity and immorality with death nothing more than unfortunate collateral damage in the pursuit of the end. If the plotting had stopped here, we could have relived all the best and worst of the films dealing with the use of force against a technologically inferior enemy. This encompasses everything from the Roman army’s ability to trample over the barbarian hordes through to the current asymmetrical conflict in Afghanistan where drones ignore geographical borders in the pursuit of terrorists on the ground — in this, we can note that those who fly these drones treat them like avatars and, in the spirit of shoot ‘em up video games, eradicate life through their monitor screens. But Cameron was not content with a “war is bad” film. He wanted the moral high ground to be commanded by a human “hero”. This theme always has to be handled with some care as, in this instance, the human is a turncoat. As an Army Ranger, discharged because of injury, he would be expected to side with the military on his return. Except he is seduced by the tree-huggers.

Ah, yes, we have the primitives shown how to fight back by a renegade human. The world of Pandora has to become as violent and ruthless as the human invaders — “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” goes the idiom and, when it comes to throwing away the lives of the locals, our hero is as caring as General Sir Douglas Haig at the Battle of the Somme. All his recruits from hither and thither across the face of the planet come to fight like Red Indians on their steeds and in the spirit of the Dragonriders of Pern. Only our hero prevails because, naturally, he gets to fly the biggest predator — size really does matter when it comes to taking on helicopter gunships. But there is an even less welcome note about the film. Unless my tired old eyes deceive me, there are only Caucasians and Hispanics in the human army. So it takes a white guy to show these primitive blue creatures how to defend themselves. With the destruction of their tree home, they would all have retreated into the forest like whipped dogs, but they are rallied by our hero. For the word “racism”, I offer the tentative definition that it assumes some racial groups may be superior to others. The humans clearly believe they are superior to the indigenous blue folk. They offer them the benefits of education and, when this gift fails to persuade them of humanity’s good intentions, they immediately fall back on the gun. Yet, by the time our white guy has finished, the tall blue folk are holding guns with the same potential killing intent as the whipped white folk as they escort the survivors off the planet. In this case, Uncle Tom is a tall blue alien who is submissive to a white leader and thereby becomes as white as him.

So this is a film that will appeal to all those people who manage to be simultaneously members of the NRA and Green Peace. For the rest of you, switch off your mind. The more you think about the film, the more painful it gets. Despite this, it does remain a quite remarkable piece of cinema. No matter how awful its politics, it is unsurpassed as a set of moving images. It is genuinely worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find with the 3D spectacles balanced on your noses. Hopefully, better writers will exploit the technology in future productions — just think how awful the The Jazz Singer (1927) is but “talkies” became the norm.

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