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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/25/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 43
Table of Contents
"It's a Small World After All."(comments by Mark R. Leeper):
At dinner last night we were talking about Disneyworld. When I think of Disney I think of little wooden figures singing how it is a small world and we are all pretty much alike. Evelyn and I have been all over the world and we can attest that people really are alike all over. Everywhere we go everyone we meet is an oxygen- breather and every one has a head. And don't expect the similarities to go much beyond that. Because people are alike, but people are also more different than you can imagine. Cultures can be more different than you can imagine. People are more different than the aliens in the novels we read. That is the reason we travel. You want to get a feel for the terrible and wonderful degree of variation that can occur in a species like ours. And you cannot read about the differences to appreciate them. You have to be there. I tell Evelyn that any place you have not seen by the time you die, you will never get another chance.
And as a science fiction fan the alienness of other cultures makes many of my most vivid memories. I don't think since I wrote my log of the trip I have repeated the story of our visit to Varanasi, India. You may know it as Benares. It has a texture that you could not confuse with anything Disney.
On the way into Varanasi we met another couple who were also visiting on their own and we suggested the four of us get a local guide and a driver and go to visit the ghats on the Ganges. We warned them that we had Luck of Leeper. We usually have unusually bad luck on trips.
The culture of Varanasi revolves around the ghats. Also, it was hot and it would be cooler by the river so we would kill two birds with one stone. So the four of us rented a car and driver for a day.
The Ganges is the Sacred River of India. It flows right through the heart of Varanasi. The river is used for everything you can think water might be used for, including some things that should not be done in the same water. But these things are done and apparently it flows fast enough that they do not have serious problems. And lining the side of the Ganges are the ghats. Ghats are stone steps going down into the river. I think we should call them terraces. But they are made of stone. And most of Indian culture takes place in the streets or on the ghats. Holy men climb down them to bathe in the river. Merchants ply their wares. I think there is even fishing, though what fish survive in this water I have no idea. Cows roam the streets freely and do what cows do. The air has the smell of the cows and of spices.
As foreigners it is hard to walk through the street without being stopped by merchants wanting to sell to us. But we knew we wanted and what we wanted was a boat ride on the Sacred Ganges. We haggled for a boatman to row us. We would go up the river, to the right, for a way. Then we would return down river to be dropped off at the Burning Ghat.
What is the Burning Ghat? It is a sacred thing to have one's remains burned on a pyre and one's ashes spread on the Sacred Ganges. More people want this end than the pyres can accommodate. Three pyres burn all day long, all night long, burning all the dead who died wanting their ashes spread. When one pyre is burned down a new one is built and another body is put on top and burned. 7 by 24 by 3. I assume you get an appointment to have your loved one's body burnt and they can schedule it a week from today at 2:30 AM. The local forests have mostly been cut down to make wood for pyres. This ghat was where we were to visit after the boat.
We gingerly entered the boat and the boatman rowed. The boat was probably already a little overloaded. The boatman rowed us up the river. We looked at the locals and they looked at us. The houses that face the river have free entertainment, even if it is low-key entertainment. They looked at us from the ghat and from sitting in the windows of buildings. The big diversion was watching river traffic. Apparently to many Indians all foreigners look like just foreigners. (In the Agra airport later that trip an Indian would stop me and ask if I was Mr. Sakajima. To an Indian I look like I could be a Mr. Sakajima.)
It had been hot and dry. As it turned out there had not been a monsoon this year. This was soon to be fixed even though October was supposed to be dry. Quite suddenly there were gray and then black clouds over us, moving in fast. It started to rain just a bit. If it really rained the little boat would be swamped. The boat had been softly rocking, now it rocked more in jolts as a breeze picked up.
The boatman looked at the black sky and quickly decided that he had gone far enough up-river. He turned the boat around and headed for the Burning Ghat. It did not really rain yet but just as we got out the wind picked up. With the spray from the river it could as well have been raining. The boatman docked at the ghat and we quickly climbed to the stone steps. As we did we were engulfed in the smoke of burning wood and the burning dead. Above dark clouds rushed to fill the empty sky. My photo-vest had a hood, but it would not stand up to the kind of rain we would soon be getting.
Then the rain started in volumes you rarely see even in a Miami storm. With the smell of ash still in our nostrils we took refuge at a shrine to Shiva where we could get out of the rain. It was one of the few doors that were not locked. None of us worshipped Shiva, but he could do this good turn for us. Evelyn asked a local guide how long does it generally rains. "Lady, I am not God."
Maybe an hour later the rain stopped enough for us to try to get back to our hired car. It was on the far side of the street. And the driver was faced away from us. We called to him and he kept reading his newspaper. We yelled but could not get his attention. And the water in the street was literally two feet deep. The town had filled with rain almost like a tub. And one does not lightly step into water in the street. Did I say that the cows who wandered the street did what cows do?
Evelyn spied a path to the car that looked only about six inches deep in the uneven street. She took off her shoes, rolled up her pants, and went knock on the windows of the car. Pluck is what it is called, I guess. He started his engine and pulled over to our side of the street but could not get close enough to the curb. We would have to wade in two-foot cow water to get to the car. But there was a rickshaw sitting there and we hired the rickshaw for five rupees to make a bridge to the car. Five of us scrambled over the rickshaw and into the taxi.
Driving out of the city, the water was high enough to seep in through the car door. But the semi-amphibious car made it through and back to non-flooded land. Soon we were out of the standing water and onto higher ground.
The manager at the hotel laughed at our story. Weather like this is very unusual. It never rains in October. But there had been no Monsoon this year. Very strange that it would rain just at the wrong moment.
Disney would tell you that it is a small world and Varanasi and New York are pretty much alike with the same kind of people and the same culture. Don't believe it. I don't think that the Epcot Center can match being in someplace real like Varanasi. That is bad in some ways and good in others.
Postcript: At this point I can't even remember who was talking about Disneyworld or at what dinner. This piece was actually written for a Guest of Honor speech at Windycon. But when the time came to give it everybody else was giving light, humorous speeches. I didn't think the audience was ready to be dunked into water with cow dung. And you really can't hear about a place like Varanasi. You have to really be there. [-mrl]
Who's sayin' Hussein? (letter of comment from Joseph T. Major and comments by Mark R. Leeper)
I asked last issue why people refer to a certain person in the Middle East is called Saddam rather than Hussein, if one name is used. Several people wrote and pointed out there are other people in the Middle East named Hussein and it might lead to confusion. So sites like http://tinyurl.com/a7le can say "Saddam has challenged Bush" rather than "Hussein has challenged Bush" to avoid ambiguity with all the other Husseins involved in this conflict. [Irony intentional.]
The most interesting response came from Joseph T Major who said:
"You ask "why do we call him Saddam"? Probably because Husayn is his father's name. His full name is "Saddam Husayn al-Majid". He could also be called, "Abu Uday" -- this being the Arab custom of calling someone in effect "father of his oldest son", "Abu" being "father" and Uday being the horrid monster whose palace was decorated in Early Orgy."
Evelyn responded to this, "So that's what it means that the Anthony Quinn character in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA was named "Auda abu Tayi."
NOVEL Bones of the Earth, Michael Swanwick (Eos) Hominids, Robert J. Sawyer (Analog Jan-Apr 2002; Tor) Kiln People, David Brin (Tor) The Scar, China Miéville (Macmillan; Del Rey) The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson (Bantam) NOVELLA "Breathmoss", Ian R. MacLeod (Asimov's May 2002) "Bronte's Egg", Richard Chwedyk (F&SF Aug 2002) Coraline, Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins) "In Spirit", Pat Forde (Analog Sep 2002) "The Political Officer", Charles Coleman Finlay (F&SF Apr 2002) A Year in the Linear City, Paul Di Filippo (PS Publishing) NOVELETTE "Halo", Charles Stross (Asimov's Jun 2002) "Madonna of the Maquiladora", Gregory Frost (Asimov's May 2002) "Presence", Maureen F. McHugh (F&SF Mar 2002) "Slow Life", Michael Swanwick (Analog Dec 2002) "The Wild Girls", Ursula K. Le Guin (Asimov's Mar 2002) SHORT STORY "Creation", Jeffrey Ford (F&SF May 2002) "Falling Onto Mars", Geoffrey A. Landis (Analog Jul/Aug 2002) "A Gift of Verse", John L. Flynn (Nexxus Fall 2002) "'Hello,' Said the Stick", Michael Swanwick (Analog Mar 2002) "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport", Michael Swanwick (Asimov's Oct/Nov 2002) RELATED BOOK The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, Justine Larbalestier (Wesleyan University Press) Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril, Judith Merril & Emily Pohl-Weary (Between the Lines) Bradbury: An Illustrated Life, Jerry Weist (Morrow) Dragonhenge, Bob Eggleton & John Grant (Paper Tiger) Spectrum 9: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, Cathy Fenner & Arnie Fenner, eds. (Underwood Books) DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, SHORT FORM Angel, "Waiting in the Wings" Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Conversations With Dead People" Firefly, "Serenity" Star Trek: Enterprise, "Carbon Creek" Star Trek: Enterprise, "A Night in Sickbay" DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, LONG FORM Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Minority Report Spider-Man Spirited Away PROFESSIONAL EDITOR Ellen Datlow Gardner Dozois David G. Hartwell Stanley Schmidt Gordon Van Gelder PROFESSIONAL ARTIST Jim Burns David A. Cherry Bob Eggleton Frank Kelly Freas Donato Giancola SEMIPROZINE Ansible, Dave Langford, ed. Interzone, David Pringle, ed. Locus, Charles N. Brown, Jennifer A. Hall & Kirsten Gong-Wong, eds. The New York Review of Science Fiction, Kathryn Cramer, David G. Hartwell & Kevin Maroney, eds. Speculations, Kent Brewster, ed. FANZINE Challenger, Guy H. Lillian III Emerald City, Cheryl Morgan File 770, Mike Glyer Mimosa, Rich & Nicki Lynch Plokta, Alison Scott, Steve Davies & Mike Scott FAN WRITER Bob Devney John L. Flynn Mike Glyer Dave Langford Steven H Silver FAN ARTIST Brad Foster Teddy Harvia Sue Mason Steve Stiles Frank Wu John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer [Not a Hugo] Charles Coleman Finlay David D. Levine Karin Lowachee Wen Spencer Ken Wharton
["A Gift of Verse", by John L. Flynn, was originally listed on the ballot for Short Story, but removed because of publication prior to 2002.]
HOLES (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Louis Sachar's story is extremely clever, but his characters are just not really very engaging. Take away the gimmicks and there is not much left here. An innocent boy is sent to a correctional work camp where the order of the day every day is dig holes in the desert. He wins the friendship and respect of the other boys and then the story gets dissipated into strange plot twists and weird connections. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
HOLES is one of those crazy, weird stories in which weird plot details seem to keep coming in totally at random. By the halfway point one is never sure where the film is going to be in another two minutes. But by the end of the film it is clear that there was method in all the madness and all the strange loose ends weirdly get knitted up so that every part of the film fits into every other part. That is a kind of clever scriptwriting that I can admire. A script where all that can be happening in a good story is really a thing of awe. But that sort of cleverness should not be what the story is all about. There needs to be a good story under it all. If the plot is only bland and then gets pulled into a lot of loose ends, the cleverness of the weird scripting can do no more for the film than good cinematography or a good musical score can by themselves. HOLES is a story where if you pull on only one little plot point, everything else in the film seems tied into it. The only problem is that the basic work camp tale is somewhat mediocre. The characters are not good and I found I just could not really care what happens to them.
Louis Sachar wrote the film based on his own book written for young adults. There are a lot of weird things going on. Shia LaBeouf plays Stanley Yelnats IV, the son of a man trying to find a way to deodorize sneakers. When he is convicted of a crime he did not commit he is sentenced to eighteen months at Camp Green Lake. In spite of the pleasant sounding name, Camp Green Lake is a work camp where boys who have been in trouble with the law are sent to work out their time digging holes in a dried-up lakebed desert. The regimen is one hole five feet in diameter and five feet deep each and every day for each and every boy. Three scoundrels run the camp. There are two sadists: Mr. Sir played by Jon Voight and Warden Walker played by Sigourney Weaver, and the worthless counselor Mr. Pendanski played by the multi-faceted Tim Blake Nelson. (Can you believe this actor is also an award- winning country music singer and wrote, produced, and directed the shattering concentration camp film THE GREY ZONE? When do you find time to sleep, Mr. Nelson?)
The film returns ever again to tell the story of Stanley's family from what looks like the hill country of Latvia, if there is such a thing. There is a gypsy curse on the Yelnats family. It also tells the story of a Wild West desperado named Kissin' Kate Barlow. Do not worry, everything will make a sort of sense as well as tie into everything else. There is also a plot about racial intolerance. That too is part of the whole strange enchilada.
HOLES has some impressive actors to bolster the story but is not highly demanding of its major adult actors. Sigourney Weaver plays her role as warden calm and cold and demanding. It is a role she has played most of her career. She adds a little more ruthlessness to her character, but it still is not greatly innovative. Jon Voight's career shows a good deal more variety, but here his character has a lot in common with the lowlife he played in ANACONDA. The film also features such diverse actors as Eartha Kitt, Henry Winkler, and Patricia Arquette. HOLES is directed by Andrew Davis, who usually does action films for adults, having directed UNDER SEIGE and THE FUGITIVE. It is odd to see him direct a young adult film, but that is not the only odd thing about this film by a long shot.
There is a lot in the film that is just a little off-kilter. Some of it is good off-kilter and some is not. There may be too much cleverness for the film's own good. I rate the film a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
MCSWEENEY'S MAMMOTH TREASURY OF THRILLING TALES edited by Michael Chabon (Vintage, 2003, ISBN 1-40000-3339-X, 480pp, $13.95) (book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Michael Chabon begins this anthology with an introduction in which he says he wants to "revive the lost genres of short fiction," and expresses a preference for "the Plotted Short Story." While this sounds admirable, one gets the impression that he hasn't been reading much outside precisely those literary magazines he is criticizing for not carrying this sort of story. As James Hynes in the "Washington Post" observed, "[I]t's not as though there's a deficit of plot in print, either. Much more plot-driven popular fiction is published and read every year than literary short stories, which appear mostly in little magazines and are read mainly by their authors' friends and family. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine are still going strong, and fat anthologies of the best science fiction, mystery and horror stories still appear every year."
(On the other hand, Mark Holcomb in the "Village Voice" said, "Save for a few moldering back issues gathering dust in rural barbershops or drawing preposterous bids on eBay, pulp- and popular-fiction magazines went the way of Vitalis hair oil and fake-turtleneck dickeys sometime in the 1970s. Out of step with the times, these bastions of populist literature passed quietly into publishing history." From this we can conclude, I think, that Hynes has a far better grasp of a clue than Holcomb.)
Anyway, Chabon's support of the plot is admirable. Would that the stories in this book lived up to it.
Oh, there are some stories that seem plot-centered, but many of them appear to me to be more of what Chabon is protesting against. They may be "genre" pieces, but they are as focused on psychology and inner angst as on plot. And somehow, "thrilling" is not a word I would apply to most of them.
Take for example the first story, "Tedford and the Magalodon" by Jim Shepard. You would think that a story about a search for a giant sea serpent would be thrilling, but it manages to be another story about the protagonist's inner feelings rather than an adventure.
"The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter" by Glen David Gold, on the other hand does have mystery and plot, even if a lot of the plot is related by one character to another. Heck, it worked for Asimov in "Foundation".
And so it goes. As I said, at least half the stories seem no different to me than the sort of "contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story" Chabon decries. They may be good (or in some cases not), but they hardly seem the sort of thing one expects in a book of "thrilling tales."
The closest to classic science fiction of the "Twilight Zone" variety is Nick Hornby's "Otherwise Pandemonium"--it even has the "magical machine" that one found so often in the old pulps. Another story with a strong plot is "The Case of the Nazi Canary" by Michael Moorcock features "Sir Seaton Begg, Metatemporal Detective," but there is no time travel or anything else like it. It is, however, an alternate history murder mystery. Chris Offut's "Chuck's Bucket" is a wonderfully convoluted alternate worlds story which obviously derives from Alfred Bester's "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed", but takes its premise down a different path--or strand of spaghetti. (One feels obliged to note that Bester lived--and died--before the recent rise of the fatwa.)
Michael Chabon's own story is also an alternate history in which the British still rule North America in 1876. However, because it is presented as the first chapter of a serialized novel, and the rest isn't there (is it possible Chabon will actually finish it?), it is ultimately disappointing.
Carol Emshwiller's "The General" seems as though it could be science fiction--or it could be straightforward adventure fiction. And Rick Moody has a science fiction story even before he starts fooling with levels of reality in "The Albertine Notes", which is the longest story in the book and the most crafted, although the style was not to my taste.
Since Chabon was not assembling a strictly science fiction anthology, or even a science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthology, there are some stories of other genres--mystery, adventure, and so on. "The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter" (mentioned above) is more along the lines of those stories of animal tamers, and "The General" (ditto) is close to a straight war story. "The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers" by Aimee Bender is a straight mystery story highly reminiscent of John Collier. Elmore Leonard's "How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman" is a flat-out Western.
Ultimately, one has to ask two questions: whether Chabon delivers on his promise of "thrilling stories," and whether the anthology is good. The answer to the first is probably "no", but the answer to the second I would say is "yes".
(It is inevitable that I would compare this in my mind to CONJUNCTIONS 39: THE NEW FABULISTS. In both cases, the intent seems to be to bring genre writing to the mainstream audience. In the case of CONJUNCTIONS, it is supposedly fantasy stories in particular; in the case of MCSWEENEY'S it is broader. But in both cases, even though the results are good, the contents do not deliver what the title implies. Then again, how often do volumes titled "The Year's Best ..." really contain the best stories, particularly when there are four different ones, each with different stories?) [-ecl]
KILN PEOPLE by David Brin (Tor, ISBN 0-765-30355-8, 2002, 460pp, $25.95) (book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I started my Hugo nominee reading with David Brin's KILN PEOPLE. (*) Now, a few months ago, I reviewed Frances Sherwood's THE BOOK OF SPLENDOR, featuring the Golem of Prague. And that it in turn was very similar to Lisa Goldstein's THE ALCHEMIST'S DOOR (which I had read a couple of weeks previously). And I added that apparently when it's time to golem, we golem. Well, evidently Brin had also decided it was time to golem. His premise is that in the future, people will be able to transfer their minds/personalities/souls (take your pick) into clay copies of themselves. These clay creatures do have the power of speech, but are called "golems" (as well as "dittos"). They also last only a day. There is a murder mystery involving the head of Universal Kilns. Their logo is a "U" and a "K", each in its own circle. Cute, right? But wait, there's more. The head of UK is Yosil Maharal, and other characters are named James Gadarene and Aeneas Kaolin. (There are competing golem producers named Tetragram Limited and Fabrique Chelm as well.) All this is very distracting, particularly when it turns out that Yosil Maharal chose that name for its connections, but (apparently) Kaolin and Gadarene did not.
The main character is a detective, who uses this new technology to create copies of himself that can go off and work for/as him, returning to "inload" their memories of the day into him before collapsing into a lifeless heap of clay. There would seem to be all sorts of philosophical questions that these copies might ask--let's start with, "Why should I go off and investigate this crime instead of sitting in the sun all day?" (This is especially true for those copies created which end up with no chance of inloading their memories.) But instead we get four points-of-view investigating a murder mystery, and the points-of-view are the detectives and three copies of the detective. It's different, but I found it ultimately too confusing, and also eventually boring--somewhere about three-quarters of the way through the book, I didn't care what the big secret was, or who committed which crime, or how to manipulate the "Standing Wave" that was apparently one's consciousness. There seemed to be some good ideas here, but they were ignored or downplayed to make room for the mystery and the whole multiple point-of-view technique.
So I have to say that while Brin raises some interesting questions, he doesn't deal with them well enough to suit my tastes.
(*) Well, actually I had already read THE SCAR by China Mieville. Or rather, I had started it, but gave up partway through because it was not my cup of tea. And I had read Kim Stanley Robinson's THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT, which I did enjoy and think worthwhile. It is an alternate history, though frankly, its virtues are not that of alternate history per se. [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I'm gradually working my way through Mark Twain's writings. It was easy enough to get and read all his novels, and some of his non-fiction (though perhaps JOAN OF ARC straddles the two), but a lot of his shorter pieces are more difficult to find. Yes, there are volumes titled "The Complete Essays" and "The Complete Short Stories", but those titles are not accurate. So I6m gradually picking up the Harper and Brothers edition of "The Complete Mark Twain"--volumes such as "Europe and Elsewhere", "In Defense of Harriet Shelley", "Mark Twain's Notebook", "Mark Twain's Speeches", "Sketches Old and New", and "What Is Man?" The title piece of the latter is a long Socratic dialogue dealing with the mind-body problem--not the sort of thing one would expect to find Twain writing about. And the end-piece is another long work, this one an essay, "Is Shakespeare Dead?", explaining that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays, or at least that Shakespeare didn't. Also included are essays on history, travel, English, and the death of his daughter Jean. All in all, it's a very varied collection, well worth reading. (I'm sure the pieces are available on-line, since Twain is well past copyright, even with the massive extensions Congress keeps voting.)
Everyone knows that Nevil Shute wrote ON THE BEACH, and a lot of people know he wrote A TOWN LIKE ALICE, but not many people are familiar with his "Vinland the Good". This is written as a screenplay, though it was never made into a movie (nor do I think that Shute necessarily expected it to be). It starts in the then-present, with a demobbed soldier returning to his British public school to teach United States history, but most of it is about how the Norse discovered America. What is most interesting is that Shute seems to emphasize the parallel origins of these first American "settlers" and the early Australian settlers. That is, the first few scenes set in the past are of Eric the Red picking fights and becoming outlawed, first from Norway to North Iceland, then from North Iceland to South Iceland, and then finally from South Iceland to Greenland. It's true that Eric got to transport himself and his family rather than being transported, and also that he tries to provide some defense for what he did (though rather unconvincingly), but the outlaw origins are there nonetheless.
John Steinbeck's AMERICA AND THE AMERICANS is quite readable, if a bit dated. It does not cover the Norse explorations, but instead looks at the current (as of 1966) state of affairs, including only as much history as is necessary. And Steinbeck's political positions are made clear throughout. Consider his description of moving the Indians from land that white settlers wanted to undesirable land: "This process took an unconscionably long and bloody time, and mistakes were made, such as the prime one of moving the Cherokee tribes from the Appalachian Mountains to the West and settling them on unpromising-looking Oklahoma. When oil was discovered there, the mistake was apparent; but for some of the Indians it was too late--they kept the oil." One can't help but feel that his writing may have been influenced by Mark Twain.
And on a more technical note, Amir D. Aczel's THE MYSTERY OF THE ALEPH tries to tie together infinity, transfinite numbers, and the Kabbalah. He is only moderately successful, even if there were serious religious concerns with the whole notion of infinity. But his description of the lives of the various mathematicians who worked on this question is less dry than usual, and you get to find out who didn't get along with whom, and yet another explanation of why there is no Nobel Prize in mathematics. (Actually, he presents two possible explanations.) And in addition, Aczel talks about Georg Cantor's mental aberrations, including that he would leave his work on transfinite numbers for long periods of time in order to try to convince people that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays. Synchronicity! [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Under peaceful conditions the militant man attacks himself. -- Friedrich Nietzsche
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