Present Tense

Jan 29, 2013

The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Book cover for THE FALL OF HYPERION by Dan Simmons
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Following the events of Hyperion, war is brewing between the Web’s Hegemony and the Ousters. As political leaders and military officials prepare for battle, secrets and betrayals are revealed. Meanwhile, on Hyperion, the Shrike pilgrims fight for their lives as the Time Tombs continue to play tricks on their minds and bodies.

More Questions Than Answers

Though I personally enjoyed The Fall of Hyperion more than the first book in the series, it still had lots of ups and downs. I can’t help but think that if Dan Simmons hadn’t created such an interesting setting in the planet Hyperion and original, frightening monster in the Shrike, I wouldn’t be as impressed as I am.

The Hyperion Cantos is a big series with many characters and many ideas—too many, in fact. While the general theme found in this book explores the relationship between creator and creation, there’s a lot of jumping around before any message is to be found. The pacing is uneven, sometimes slow when you figure something out far sooner than the characters do, and there are more loose ends than there should be.

A sizable portion of The Fall of Hyperion is told from a new character’s first-person perspective. While the consciousness of the cybrid “reincarnation” of John Keats lives on in the implant Brawne Lamia carries with her on Hyperion, a second cybrid has been created back in the Web with a slightly altered version of this same persona. He goes by the name of Joseph Severn, a painter and the historical John Keats’ friend. Joseph finds his persona overlaps in surprising ways with what’s left of the first John Keats’ cybrid data as Joseph’s dreams take on the shape of the Shrike pilgrims’ waking reality. These dreams of the others are relayed in separate chapters in third person.

As in Hyperion, Simmons plays with narrative perspective and tense. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t make for the most comfortable read, particularly in the first half of the book. It takes time to warm to Joseph and the Web he inhabits. It’s a rather dry world that mostly consists of flimsy characters talking about military logistics and planets you never see enough of to care about. Then, for me, Joseph’s “dream connection” to Keats made me pass that strange and arbitrary point where I could no longer suspend disbelief. (Apparently my brain accepts portals and organic metal monsters, though.) It was far too convenient that the Shrike pilgrims were always awake and doing something of note when Joseph was asleep to “watch” them through the first John Keats. Right, sure. It’s hard enough for me to chat with friends in Australian time zones.

Still, I was glad for Joseph’s dreams because I continued to care the most about the Time Tombs and pilgrims he saw in them. There are some really great scenes where they face the Shrike, who only becomes creepier and more mysterious as the pages turn. The only negative thing I can say about this part of the plotting and world-building is that sometimes, in an effort to keep everything mysterious, Simmons never provides answers. Then, if you do find an answer to a question, it may be unfortunately anticlimactic. There’s a very good reason TV Tropes includes this series on its Kudzu Plot page.

This is most frustrating when it comes to Colonel Kassad and Sol and Rachel’s stories, all of which fall flat merely, it would seem, for convenience. There’s room for more information about these and other characters, but whether Simmons can give them the story arcs they deserve over the next two books is questionable—especially since the rest of the series isn’t focused on any of these characters.

Finally, philosophically speaking, The Fall of Hyperion ends up in some strange territories I don’t like. I enjoyed much of Simmons’ exploration of the relationship between creator and creation: who controls whom, chicken and egg. But I don’t see any reason why that theme had to go in the direction of gods and religion. By the end of this book, the series has moved further away from science fiction, to venture into some messianic fantasy, prophecies and all. There’s no need for it, and I’d argue there’s little lead-up to it.

As the next book in the series, Endymion, mostly features different characters, I’m thinking readers never get answers to a number of remaining questions. Though I enjoyed The Fall of Hyperion more than its predecessor, I’ll skim-read the rest of the series, if that, just to know more about the Shrike. Reviews for those books aren’t likely to follow.

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Quotes from The Fall of Hyperion

Tyrena was a dinosaur who refused to become extinct–her wrists, palms, and neck would have glowed blue from repeated [anti-aging treatments] if it had not been for makeup, and she spent decades on short-hop interstellar cruises or incredibly expensive cryogenic naps at spas too exclusive to have names; the upshot was that Tyrena Wingreen-Feif had held the social scene in an iron grip for more than three centuries and showed no signs of relinquishing it. With every twenty-year nap, her fortune expanded and her legend grew.

He pulled and struggled and twisted even as the creature hugged him more closely, pulling him onto its own blades as if he were a butterfly being mounted, a specimen being pinned.

“A less-enlightened personage once asked Ummon, ‘What is the God-nature/Buddha/Central Truth?’ Ummon answered him, ‘A dried shit-stick.'”

Jan 21, 2013

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Book cover for HYPERION by Dan Simmons
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In the distant future, Old Earth has died, humans have spread throughout the universe, and technology has blossomed to both our advantage and detriment. As large-scale war looms, several people are called on a pilgrimage to the planet Hyperion—so named after English Romantic poet John Keats’ unfinished work. It’s on Hyperion that the mysterious and deadly monster known as the Shrike can be found near the Time Tombs, a place that confounds archaeologists and physicists alike. As the travelers make their journey, each recounts his or her life story, revealing the many ways they are all connected to each other and their destination.

Science Fiction Meets The Canterbury Tales

The universe author Dan Simmons has created in Hyperion is expansive, with many characters, worlds, and technological devices. Entering such foreign, futuristic territory tends to go one of two ways in speculative fiction: Either the story begins slowly as you are introduced to the mechanics of the world, or the author opens a floodgate and hopes you’ll keep up. Simmons chose to unleash the flood, and there’s a lot of techie jargon at the beginning of Hyperion—some of it dated—that might put off readers who aren’t usually open to science fiction. (Tree ships? Fatline messages? All Thing? Farcasting?) Still, if you can roll with this brand of immersion, the book is mostly rewarding beyond its lexicon of buzzwords and occasional pitfalls.

Hyperion is separated into several parts. The book’s present-day story, where war looms on the horizon, is told in a limited third-person perspective, but most of the book is made up of several first-person accounts, á la The Canterbury Tales, from each of the main characters who are on the Shrike pilgrimage. Each character is on the pilgrimage for either personal or political reasons; all are guarding secrets and frightened for their lives.

There is the priest who is physically and horrifically tied to Hyperion, the famed colonel who’s had inexplicable visions, the brash poet whose muse is a monster from nightmares, the scholar who hopes his daughter’s heartbreaking illness can end on Hyperion (as it started), the detective who carries the memories of a reincarnated writer, and a government official who is weighed down by his knowledge of endless corruption and conspiracies.

These first-person accounts are a mixed bag. While I loved the stories the priest, poet, and scholar told, and the government official ended up having some things of interest, I was less intrigued by the tales the war general and detective had to tell. I did some skim-reading. Perhaps that’s a matter of taste, though, and Simmons does deserve credit for giving each character a clear voice, regardless. He’s also pretty good at bending genres whenever and wherever he pleases.

For me, where Simmons falters most is in thinking we need to know about all of the elements of his world. Presumably, this is the reason he chose to write the book in a way that allowed him to tour the universe. As much as I enjoyed some of the characters’ backstories, I would have preferred Simmons stayed out of the past and instead focus on what was only relevant to the third-person plotting that surrounded each backstory. Despite the largeness of the world and some of the individual character’s histories, this book has a very small story itself: some people journey to another planet. Enjoyable or not, the detours into each traveler’s past seriously detract from the book’s present. As such, Hyperion feels a little like a teaser for the real story that’s set to unfold in the rest of the series.

So what makes me generally like this book and want to continue reading, as I plan to?

Above all, it’s the Shrike, which is one of the best, creepiest monsters I’ve encountered in science fiction or horror. I’d rather not spoil the details that exist about the Shrike because how they are revealed through the character backstories in Hyperion is really great. Simmons kept my skin crawling every time the Shrike—and the mysterious cult who follows the monster—came into the picture. I suspect much of the acclaim for this book and the series is based on this creative bogeyman.

Hyperion has its problems, both technical and creative, but I’m looking forward to seeing what befalls my favorite characters and the Shrike that lies in wait. (I have so many questions. Is the Shrike just misunderstood? Is the whole world universe going to end?!) Whether Simmons can hold me for the entire series depends largely on the next book, The Fall of Hyperion.

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Quotes from Hyperion

In the beginning was the Word. Then came the fucking word processor. Then came the thought processor. Then came the death of literature. And so it goes.

The lieutenant took his time scanning their visa chips, letting them wait in the drizzle, occasionally making a comment with the idle arrogance common to such nobodies who have just come into a small bit of power.

And Sol awakened half laughing, half chilled by the dream. Amused by the thought that the entire Talmud and the Old Testament might be nothing more than a cosmic shaggy-dog story.

Nov 3, 2011

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

Book cover for THE GARGOYLE by Andrew Davidson
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Self-destructive after a life of bad luck and bad choices, a man’s drunken car accident leaves most of his body covered with life-threatening burns. While he struggles to survive in a depressed state in the hospital, a mentally disturbed woman helps heal his psychological wounds with stories of their past lives as lovers.

The Power of Storytelling

Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle opens with its narrator, a cynical, unnamed man with an unfortunate past. The narrator has narrowly survived a horrific car crash of his own, drunken making and must now begin a new life. His body is so completely burned that he is unrecognizable, a grotesque, patchwork figure reminiscent of gargoyles. This is a far cry from the man he was, one whose handsomeness made life easy and gave him a rather successful career as a porn actor. As he slowly recovers in the hospital, he reflects on the painfulness of his childhood, the imperfection of his former life, his selfishness and vanity, and, most of all, how much he wishes he could have it all back, if only to be out of his scarred body. As his depression worsens, he dreams of committing suicide once he’s released from the hospital.

But there are people around him determined to see him not only survive, but thrive, with the life he has been left with, scars and all. One person invested in his well-being is a mentally ill woman by the name of Marianne Engel. She’s an unpredictable artist—she sculpts grotesques/gargoyles—with a personality that changes from day to day, if not by the hour. She’s absurd, she’s weird, she’s crazy. She believes God speaks to and through her. Despite all this, the narrator is intrigued by her, and she shows him love when he feels no one else does. If nothing else, he can halfway accept love from her, as she is broken, too.

Of course, Marianne would show him love, as part of her insanity—or is she insane?—is that she believes she and the narrator were lovers…hundreds of years prior to their meeting in the hospital. She believes they are reincarnated souls, together again to right the wrongs between them, but also destined to repeat some of their worst mistakes, too. To prove the “truth” of this to the narrator, Marianne tells him the story of their supposed past, hoping to coax memories out of him while he heals.

If The Gargoyle were simply about a broken man whose relationships heal him, it would not be an original plot, but Davidson would write the hell out of it. But after the first quarter to half of the book, the story stops being about the narrator’s physical and emotional struggles as a burn victim and starts being about his relationship with Marianne Engel and the stories she’s telling him, which include not only their supposed past love stories, but similar “forever love” stories about other side characters in the book. Davidson wants you and the narrator to question whether Marianne Engel is possibly telling the truth, whether reincarnation and a love you would die for are possible. As a lover of fantasy fiction, that plot doesn’t scare me off; it’s just the way Davidson presents it that is frustrating.

The Gargoyle has all the traits one expects from a good book—well-rounded characters, a strong and original narrator, and interesting plot points. If you take all of the various mini-stories as Marianne tells them, and review them individually, some, perhaps even most, are good. But when you put the straggling pieces together to make a single work, things don’t mesh so well. The parts that make up the whole are too different to blend smoothly. In other words, you are likely to enjoy part of the whole, but not the whole itself. It’s the same way I love tomatoes, chocolate, and garlic, but don’t want them in a soup together.

Perhaps the problem is that I was not invested in the narrator’s relationship with Marianne Engel—past or present—and so a meandering exploration of it failed to grab me. The story I was interested in was their mutual recoveries through each other and the people from the hospital who cared for them. Whether their healing and leaning on each other meant they ended up together or not didn’t matter to me. When Marianne’s stories go on for so many pages, taking us away from her and the narrator’s present struggles, the book’s tone changes considerably. In some respects, this becomes a big romance, even if the narrator is an unconventional lead and the writing is “deeper” than what one often sees in the romance genre.

Wasn’t the idea of a mentally ill woman caring for a physically and emotionally scarred man enough of a plot? A highly-detailed reincarnation backstory seems superfluous.

I loved the narrator in The Gargoyle and don’t regret reading the book. But after all the dramatic lead-up, the ending is anticlimactic. Readers are never given a definitive answer as to whether Marianne is insane, but it’d be hard to think of her as otherwise, even after our narrator has some “spiritual experiences” (after going off of morphine) that seem to lend credence to her tales. In the end, the narrator is healed and whole in a way his body never can be, but some of his journey is marred by the tangential side stories.

I can see myself reading other books by Andrew Davidson in the future because he is indeed a good writer. Even so, The Gargoyle does read and feel like a first novel, so don’t be surprised when you encounter bumps in the road.

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Quotes from The Gargoyle

I understand that some people find God after misfortune, although this seems to me even more ridiculous than finding Him in good times. “God smote me. He must love me.” It’s like not wanting a romantic relationship until a member of the opposite sex punches you in the face. My “miraculous survival” will not change my opinion that Heaven is an idea constructed by man to help him cope with the fact that life on earth is both brutally short, and paradoxically, far too long.

Boredom was my bedmate and it was hogging the sheets.

May 22, 2011

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

Book cover for THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon
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As an autist, Lou Arrendale struggles in a world that, at best, doesn’t quite understand him and, at worst, hates him. Using long-learned techniques, he lives a decent, if occasionally awkward, life, working for a pharmaceutical company where he finds patterns in data. Functioning in society is possible, though difficult, especially now that children up to a certain age can be cured of autism. This leaves Lou’s generation the last of their kind and perhaps more misunderstood because of that. When the company Lou works for believes it’s found a way to cure autism in adults, Lou must decide whether he wants to change. Will he lose himself by becoming what others wish he was?

Imagining the End of Autism

The Speed of Dark is a character-driven story. If you’re not interested in close and personal explorations of the human condition and psyche, this book’s not for you. It isn’t a sweeping adventure with lots of action and witty, debonair characters. It’s about one man and his small, but important life journey, which is made more complicated by autism. Primarily told from Lou Arrendale’s somewhat stilted perspective, it is a story about being confused and confusing others, about being accepted and loved—or feared and hated—because of who you are, who you can’t help being. It’s about trying to balance the acceptance and change. It’s about figuring out what the hell the terms “normal” and “abnormal” mean—if they mean anything at all.

Though The Speed of Dark is more focused on its characters, it has a small but meaningful plot—and, potentially, a realistic one. Set in the future (2040s?), Lou is one of a transitional generation in terms of medical science. He was born in a time when society had learned of reliable techniques to help him function with his autism, but he was born too early for the gene therapy that cures autism in children two years and younger. This puts Lou in a precarious position, where society not only doesn’t quite understand autistm (still), but is also coming to expect the disorder to be a matter of the past because of recent scientific developments.

Lou, along with several other autists, works for a pharmaceutical company, where his job is to find patterns in data. His autism enables him to find and understand patterns much more quickly than “normal” individuals can, and perhaps more intuitively and creatively than a computer can. When middle management changes hands, Lou’s section of the company is determined too costly, due to its employees’ special needs (a gym, music, etc.). When there’s hope a cutting edge technology may reverse autism in adults, Lou and his coworkers are given an unethical ultimatum: they are either to participate in the clinical trial as guinea pigs or the company will find a way to legally fire them.

With hardly any information to go on, Lou and his coworkers must decide if they want the treatment, which has previously only been tested on animals. Those who care for Lou must decide how much they can or should interfere, and whether they want to get involved in what is set to be a personal and legal quagmire. What unfolds is a tale of self-exploration and a look at what it means to be human and supposedly normal.

What I like most about The Speed of Dark is its balance of characters. Given the subject matter, there could easily be a lot of stereotyping of those with autism and those without. Moon expertly avoids this. A whole range of autistic experiences are exhibited by various characters, and characters without autism are just as diverse. She doesn’t try to paint any one group as being completely innocent or evil, weak or strong. I’m sure it took effort, especially considering she has personal experience in this matter, as a parent to a son with autism.

I’ve seen some reviews compare The Speed of Dark to Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, a book first published in 1959. While similar questions and emotions are explored, I think it’s obvious The Speed of Dark is the newer of the two, and modern readers are more likely to relate to it. Moreover, the situation Lou finds himself in—of being one of a transitional generation—is something I imagine we’ll see in the near future (if it’s not already happening to some degree, as I suspect it might be).

Some readers complain about The Speed of Dark‘s ending, which is a little abrupt, but so long as one goes into the book knowing the story is specifically about autism and the choices one who’s seen as being abnormal has to make, the ending will not be bothersome.

Anyone who loves science fiction and delving deep into characters’ minds should give The Speed of Dark a try. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet story.

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Quotes from The Speed of Dark

I like it that order exists somewhere even if it shatters near me.

“Do you like the gym a lot, then?”

The long answer is always more interesting than the short one. I know that most people want the short uninteresting answer rather than the long interesting one, so I try to remember that when they ask me questions that could have long answers if they only understood them. Mr. Crenshaw only wants to know if I like the gym room. He doesn’t want to know how much.

“It’s fine,” I tell him.

Sometimes it seems obvious why normal people do things and other times I cannot understand it at all.

May 6, 2011

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Book cover for THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood
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Extremist Judeo-Christian beliefs have won America’s culture war. Now women have no rights. They are slaves to men and the biblical, patriarchal society in which they live. The Handmaid’s Tale is the first-person account of one of these enslaved women.

Massachusetts Becomes Saudi Arabia?

More than thirty years have passed since The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985, but many still think of it as the go-to book for feminist fiction. It makes numerous “best of” lists, the kinds with 99 other books everyone should read before dying. Even so, The Handmaid’s Tale frustrates me a lot—and not only because it contains run-on sentences and needlessly abandons quotation marks. (This is no train wreck like José Saramago’s Blindness, but it’s bad enough.) Simply put, if you can ignore whether you agree or disagree with Margaret Atwood’s ideas about politics, religion, and women’s rights, the plot and setting make no sense.

The religiosity of the Reagan era inspired Atwood’s dystopia, in which fundamentalist Christians have taken over society. While that premise does give me the heebie-jeebies, Atwood’s taken the idea to a literal extreme to make a point. This ruins the foundation of The Handmaid’s Tale because most American fundies would balk at this world. Atwood imagines the extreme of the extreme and in the process completely misunderstands American evangelicalism.

Gallup's U.S. map of weekly religious service attendanceI’m a heathen bastard and no fan of religion. Fundamentalism has hurt people, particularly women, for millennia. Extremism continues to hurt people every day, especially in some parts of the world, especially in some states. Even so, it’s hard to accept Atwood’s dystopia when it’s set in the U.S., in the near future—and in Massachusetts, one of the most progressive states in the country, one of only sixteen states in the union with state constitutional protections for abortion (since 1981, I believe). Massachusetts is a liberal bastion when it comes to American women’s reproductive rights, so it’s an odd setting for this brand of nightmare. In recent decades, Massachusetts is also one of the least religious states, so it’s an odd setting for a theocracy, too.

Atwood chose Massachusetts for its puritanical history. I can embrace the connection to the Reagan administration, in the same way I can embrace Orwell’s fear of communism in 1984, but to imagine an unchanging, puritanical Massachusetts requires a bit too much.

Societies Don’t Change Overnight

The Handmaid’s Tale is told in first person by a woman who’s lived in our present day (more or less), as well as in this dark fundamentalist Tomorrowland. She’s gone from wearing flip-flops and sundresses to a full-body religious habit, color-coded red to match her subservient role. She was married once, had a child. Now she’s another’s property, one of the handmaids sent from one man’s house to another. The hope is that she will become pregnant when a prominent man’s wife cannot. Her life has been flipped and made forfeit. She lives in fear and depression and abuse. This is meant to make me unnerved, and it does.

But.

Simply because an author wants to comment on society doesn’t mean he or she can ignore important, logical story elements. The logic part should be emphasized here, I think, given this is supposed to be science fiction, not fantasy. (Although Atwood does insist The Handmaid’s Tale is speculative fiction, because that further legitimizes her story…or something? Never mind that sci-fi and fantasy are types of speculative fiction.)

There’s a question I have that never gets answered, not properly at least. How did this happen so quickly? How did we go from “burning bras” to having every part of our lives regulated? Why did it take Massachusetts decades, centuries, to reject puritanism, but only a few years(?) to reject liberalism?

Rights can erode, but you don’t see it happen on such a large scale and so seamlessly, and not overnight. Nothing happens overnight, especially not governmental takeovers in relatively stable, secular societies, which is the book’s scenario.

Societies evolve, one way or another, usually rather slowly. Civil, moral, and regime changes don’t sneak up on you. It wasn’t the case in Germany before Hitler, in China before Mao, in Afghanistan before the Taliban, in Syria before its civil war. It’s not the case in 2016, with people like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump leading in GOP primary polls. The world may be disappointing and horrible sometimes, but it is rarely surprising.

If Atwood had built her dystopia on a chain of events that occurred over a longer period of time, or explained how everything unraveled so quickly, I might have been on board with the premise. That isn’t how The Handmaid’s Tale is written, though. The explanations for the sudden changes are fantastical, at best, dependent on evil, digitized money—be careful with the mobile payments and bitcoins, ladies!—and misogynistic, conservative conspiracies that readers are to believe could bring millions of people to a stupefied halt and change culture in the blink of an eye. Apparently it’s easy to gun down all of Congress while it’s in session. Who knew?

I don’t buy it.

You can change laws all you want, but society, culture, has to be willing to follow the most drastic changes. (This is why the American Drug War has never worked, why prohibition of alcohol never worked, why banning abortion didn’t work.) Why was modern American society so willing to enslave women?

Atwood chucks a plot point at you here or there, hinting at a larger, more complex world through her main character. There’s a vague fertility crisis (of course). There’s conflict somewhere between some people about some stuff, but details are never given. Some of this can be excused, what with the limited point of view, but not all. Plot holes aren’t mysterious or clever. They’re just plot holes.

By the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, I feel the book is less an exploration of religious extremism and feminism than it is a narrative written for shock value. It’s an irrational feminist’s fears exposed, that the world is out to get you at every turn—especially the men, especially the women controlled and brainwashed by the men. Nowhere is safe. Overall, the summary for this book could be this: Almost anyone with a penis is mostly unfeeling and evil, deep down. (The rest are idiots, I suppose.) He doesn’t care. He will betray you at the first opportunity. Even when you’re dead and gone, he will chuckle at your misfortune and demise. No, this isn’t sexist or a generalization. Of course not. Not at all.

Except it is.

Asides

  • For a slightly more accurate portrayal of American Christian fundamentalism and its very awkward relationship with women, see Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke. It makes several nods to The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale—and better understands its villains and their behavior.
  • Two nonfiction books, Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul and Ned & Constance Sublette’s The American Slave Coast: The History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, will show you what it’s really like to live in a society where women are chattel.
  • Some think that because I dislike this book I’m not a feminist, or am a bad feminist. I hate to break it to everyone, but Margaret Atwood is not feminism’s god, and The Handmaid’s Tale is not a religious text. If I must attach labels to myself, feminist would be one of them, and I’ll say and think whatever I damn well please. And as a feminist, I hate how one-dimensional the men are in this book, just as much as I hate how one-dimensional women are in far more books, TV shows, and movies. Deal with it. Or don’t. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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