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Friday, January 23, 2009


Posted by Adam Roberts on 01/23/09 at 06:41 AM

Oscars?  Pooh-pooh.  Let’s talk serious awards.  The 2009 BSFA (British Science Fiction Association to you or me) Award shortlist has just been announced.  Here it is:

Best Novel
Flood by Stephen Baxter
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod
Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Best Short Fiction
“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang (Eclipse 2)
“Crystal Nights” by Greg Egan (Interzone 215)
“Little Lost Robot” by Paul McAuley (Interzone 217)
“Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” by M. Rickert (F&SF, Oct/Nov 2008)

Best Non-Fiction
“Physics for Amnesia” by John Clute (talk given at the Gresham College Symposium “Science Fiction as a Literary Genre")
Superheroes!: Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films by Roz Kaveney (I.B. Tauris)
What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid (Beccon)
Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn (Wesleyan)

I’ve been pondering award shortlists recently: last year I decided, for reasons not entirely coherent even to myself, to get as much of a handle as I could on both the Booker long and short lists.  Reading so many books in such a short time was an interesting experience, rather like spinning round and round and then trying to clamber over an obstacle course comprising a succession of sofas.  Latterly I’ve been contemplating the Costa award (here, actually, are my thoughts on one of the shortlisted titles, Adam Fould’s The Broken Word; I may post on more).

These award things are intended to celebrate what is good in a particular subculture and to direct people to what they might want to be reading.  Which is fair enough, although the BSFA ‘best novel’ shortlist is a weird thing, in that respect.  I have a high opinion of the Baxter; the Harraway book is likeable but broken; MacLeod has written some brilliant books, but The Night Sessions really isn’t one of them; and I’m presently stuck, like a mammoth in a tar pit, in the middle of Anathem.  There are those amongst the SF community whose enthusiasm for Stephenson’s novels really knows no bounds, and maybe they’re right.  I suppose I’m enjoying it more than … no, enjoying isn’t the right word.  Try again: Anathem is a better book than Stephenson’s previous (and multiple-prizewinning) Baroque Trilogy, and I think I can see why people are falling in love with its cross pollination between Harry Potter, Canticle of Liebowitz and Sophie’s World (the genetic material of the last named title manifests particularly strongly).  But for all that it is going to win the prize, it’s not as good as (to pick a few titles) The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Steel Remains, Memoirs of a Master Forger, The Quiet War. I could go on.  So, meh, I don’t seem to be falling in love with Anathem.  There’s a lot to admire, but there’s one core way in which I think it’s a bad book.  It flatters the reader.  It renders difficult stuff simple.  I can’t be the only person the world to think that a better business of art is bringing out the difficulty inherent in ordinary stuff. Writers shouldn’t be flatterers.

But that’s by-the-bye.  I’ve been pondering whether responding to awards in this way (as it might be: my, what a rubbish shortlist!) is appropriate.  I don’t mean, constructive, or wise, or anything like that.  What I mean is this:  awards are a sort of language game, and everybody knows their rules, which (whatever the rubric says) aren’t really to do with the merit of a particular title.  Awards are performative utterances by which SF (or mutatis mutandi, other genres: ‘lit fic’, crime, whatever) render themselves into the world.  Objecting to the content of these utterances is not irrelevant, but it may be missing the more fundamental point.


”... it’s not as good as (to pick a few titles) The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Steel Remains, Memoirs of a Master Forger, The Quiet War. I could go on.”

ooh, i wish you would! 98% of the stuff in the sf section is utter tripe, so i’m delighted to see good solid recommendations - they’re not easy to find. i wasn’t aware of any of the books you mentioned, although i’d probably have bought the mcauley on sight anyway.

BTW, what would be a more appropriate way to respond to the awards? “Hurrah for Sci. Fi.! What a nice cover Anathem is wearing tonight!”

By on 01/23/09 at 08:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Neal Stephanson has written some nice, pop-y stuff, although I got tired of it by Cryptonomicon and skipped The Baroque Trilogy.  But with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in his lineage… Ken MacLeod has written some nice, political-y stuff.  But with Alasdair Gray and Iain Banks in his lineage… I haven’t even read anything by any of the other novelists, whether shortlisted or suggested by you as should-have-been-shortlisted.

Should I bother?  I mean, the only SF I’ve read that’s been written in the last few years is (ahem) yours.  Or maybe China Mieville’s or some other New Weird people, depending on whether you call that SF.  Otherwise, when I read SF at all, I’m still working my way through the New Wave back catalogue.  Without commitment to fan subculture, is there anything important that I’m really missing?  Not to insult fine writers who are all very talented I’m sure.

By on 01/23/09 at 10:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I haven’t even read anything by any of the other novelists [...]”

Wait, The Steel Remains is by Richard Morgan, right?  I’ve read his Takeshi Kovacs series up through Woken Furies.  They’re enjoyable noir / SF mashups, if you like that kind of thing.  But if that’s the best SF being written now, I think I can pass.

By on 01/23/09 at 10:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s an interesting question, Rich (I mean the ‘what do you reckon I should read?’ question).  It speaks directly to what I was saying in the post.

I once went on a BBC Radio 2 round table talk-y thing with a bunch of other people.  Whilst we were waiting to go into the studio I got chatting with a ‘literature’ talking head feller : ‘so you write science fiction do you? Hmm hoom hoom.’ He worked on the TLS, I remember, and was saying ‘we sometimes get sent those sorts of books to review’ in a distant, vague sort of way.  But his nice knockdown argument (there’s glory for you) was: ‘you see, the sorts of dinner parties I go to, if I upped and said I’ve been reading a science fiction novel called ... I would be greeted by blank faces all round the table.’

I don’t mean to sound dismissive.  My point is that we often act as if the assumption is that people read ‘for pleasure’; and sometimes they do.  But just as often, and possibly more often, people read instrumentally.  Or maybe it would be better to say: they read for pleasure, but when it comes to choosing which, amongst tens of thousands of titles, they should read next they think instrumentally.  As it might be: everyone I know is reading this; I’ll read it, so I can talk with them about it.  SF is no different.  At the moment, for example, everybody in the narrow world of SF is reading, or has read, Stephenson’s Anathem.  Some people love it, some don’t, but that’s what’s being discussed, and if you want to join in the discussion you need to read it too.  University Literature departments’ syllabi are merely the codification of this process.  The popularity of book groups is another manifestation of it.

So, if you’re asking: should I read any of these titles? it’s hard to answer without asking, in some form, ‘to what end?’ Read the bsfa shortlist if you want to get some sense of what the bsfa, as a body, thinks good sf is.  It’s not what I think good sf is, particularly (though I’m also a member of the bsfa).  You might be interested in what the bsfa thinks makes good sf, or to join in that nexus of discussion.  But that’s a different sort of answer to ‘you might get a lot of pleasure from these four novels.’ Because on that criterion, yeah, there were better sf novels published last year.

By Adam Roberts on 01/23/09 at 11:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmm, interesting sort of answer.  But I think that the only answer to the “hmm hoom hoom” people is to develop your own, independent if necessary, idea of what literary SF is.  And as soon as you start reading for anything approaching literariness, you confront the back catalogue.  There will always be more interesting-yet-ignored pseudo-literary works dwelling somewhere in the past than there are being written right now, unless right now you’re in the middle of some new subgenre’s take-off.  And as far as I can tell right now, we aren’t.

By on 01/23/09 at 11:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Not to be blunt—oh hell, I’ll be blunt. What’s relatively new, interesting, and well-written? Off the list I’ve read some Egan, Baxter, Stephenson, MaCleod, but honestly, out of my SF reading of the past several years, I’ve enjoyed yours the most. So for someone who doesn’t care much for keeping up with the world of SF and just wants to read some good new SF, what do you recommend? I’ve already written down the titles rog quoted from the article, though with Rich I’m not nuts about the noirish Morgan stuff.

I understand the impulse to deconstruct our desires, etc., but, really, I’d just prefer some recommendations ;) I don’t hang around many people who read SF so I don’t really care if your recommendations include what are currently hot topics of conversation.

By on 01/23/09 at 03:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rog, I’m not ignoring you; your comment has only just appeared (moderation, I’ll wager).  There are some worthwhile recommendations in the Strange Horizons best of 2008 feature.

By Adam Roberts on 01/23/09 at 05:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Trent: my comment missed yours.  Morgan’s new one is a noirish ultraviolent Heroic Fantasy novel, with a gay hero, and it shakes things up very nicely indeed.  A similar sweary-sweary stab-kill-mutilate-spindle emphasis, but a very different feel to the Kovacs book.  Egan and Greg Bear are both really interesting writers and both had books out last year, but I can’t say I liked either of them very much.  On the other hand I thought McAuley’s Quiet War really very good; Flood too; Kinfe of Never Letting Go is brilliant children’s literature.  The best novel I read last year is le Guin’s latest, Lavinia, the opposite end of the scale from Morgan (though not without violence), but beautiful and deeply affecting.  Thanks, incidentally, for the kind words re: my own stuff.  I’d use your mention to springboard to a recommendation of my own 2008 novel (available wherever good books are sold etc), except that I seem to have forgotten what it is called.  Moving swiftly on.

By Adam Roberts on 01/23/09 at 07:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have a basic mental distinction between SF that is “literary” and “non-literary”, with that not mapping necessarily to writing skill but also to intent, ambition, subgenre.  The “non-literary” stuff is entertaining, and often well crafted, but I fundamentally don’t think that anyone could, say, usefully write criticism about it, other than the kind of criticism that you can write about any cultural artifact no matter what it is.  So the best Iain Banks books can be literary, I think, even though people seem most often to sniff and dismiss him as a pulp author.  Anyone who starts a subgenre pretty much gets brevetted to “literary” out of interest’s sake.  So, some literary SF writers would be John Crowley, PKD, Michael Moorcock, Stapledon, LeGuin, Lem, China Mieville, Gene Wolfe, Delany, Wells,etc.—a lot of the usual suspects, but some that most people might not include.

There are non-literary writers that I like to read, certainly, but at their best they seem to be essentially very good storytellers.  Someone like Roger Zelazny might be a border case.  He had aspirations towards experimental writing at times, certainly, and more sophistication than most SF authors, but I can’t think of that much criticism I’d like to see about his works.

The writers that I think of as “non-literary”, like Richard Morgan—well, I liked his series, more so towards the beginning of it, but these writers in general seem susceptible to one-sentence or one-paragraph descriptions of what their thing is.  “Noir SF with anarchist sentiments”, maybe, if I had to compress to a sentence fragment in this case.  For someone like David Brin, “vaguely environmental 50s-style SF potboilers.” Starting a series is always a chancy thing for an SF or fantasy writer with literary aspirations to do, but one of these writers, it can self-typecast them really fast.  (The unforgivable thing to do is to write a “within someone else’s universe” book—not in the sense of fanfic, but to hire—which Brin has done too.)

The whole concept of judging SF by “ideas” seems to me to be a non-starter, at least for novels.

By on 01/23/09 at 07:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Without large-breasted lizard women, sci-fi just isn’t sci-fi. 

That’s all you’ll get out of me after reading 96 sophomore essays on *Antigone* and *Les Miserables*.

Whatever the book is about, it’s good if it has big breasted lizard women and if it’s not about the conflict between family, church, and state.

By on 01/24/09 at 12:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah yes: lizards with breasts.  The Platonic Form of the oxymoron.  (See also: ‘science fiction’)

By Adam Roberts on 01/24/09 at 06:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: “The whole concept of judging SF by ‘ideas’ seems to me to be a non-starter, at least for novels.” Certainly (I mean, almost by definition) it’s a nonstarter for cinema, TV, videogames and comics, the quadrumvirate that dominates SF nowadays.  But, yes, I’d tend to agree that even novels and short stories in SF are now much less about ‘ideas’ than they used to be.  Which I’d say is a good thing, since I’m not really a Golden Age style ‘ideas’ writer.

By Adam Roberts on 01/24/09 at 06:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I have a slightly less historicized interpretation of ideas in SF.  I think that ideas are all right to be what SF short stories are about.  And the idea-based SF novels from the Golden Age seem to me to be mostly “fix-ups”; short stories joined or expanded into novels.  And they show it.

So the whole belief that some people have about SF being “the literature of ideas” seems to me to be a remnant of a time in which SF was the literature of magazines that published short stories.

By on 01/24/09 at 11:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"When I read SF at all, I’m still working my way through the New Wave back catalogue.  Without commitment to fan subculture, is there anything important that I’m really missing?”

I’m not sure if M. John Harrison is considered part of your New Wave back catalogue, but if not, don’t miss Light.

By on 01/25/09 at 03:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Light was good, although perhaps not his best.  I thought the later parts of Viriconium were more properly disjointed.  Although I guess they are supposed to be fantasy, and not count.  I think that I included him among the New Weird, although I have no idea whether he self-identifies as one.

China Mieville, in an interview somewhere on Long Sunday or on one of their blogs, said that everyone was either an M. John Harrisonite or a John Crowleyite—something like that.  Seems like a somewhat artificial distinction, unless you take prose style very seriously which I suppose as a writer he’s entitled to do.  The Course of the Heart might as well have been a John Crowley novel, and Engine Summer could maybe have been M. John Harrison.  Anyways, yes, I think that’s where the core good writing is generally happening in the genre right now,; it’s just not mostly SF.  Although I see that Nova Swing is out, which I haven’t read.  I don’t know how enthusiastic I actually am about a sequel to Light.  Anyone read it?

By on 01/25/09 at 10:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that the only answer to the “hmm hoom hoom” people is to develop your own, independent if necessary, idea of what literary SF is.

Rich—to what purpose? I’m not asserting that there isn’t one, I’m honestly curious where you’re coming from.

(As for criticism, I think somebody could get a thesis out of the construction of masculinity in either Zelazny or Morgan.)

By David Moles on 01/26/09 at 06:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To take the second part first, one could get a thesis out of the construction of masculinity in any slightly unusually macho character --the Hulk, say.  But that’s the kind of thing I meant when I referred to criticism that can be done about any cultural object.  It doesn’t mean that there’s any particular reason to be interested in them as individual works rather than cultural exemplars.

For the first, if you’re going to read a whole lot of SF, it would help to have some sort of literary ideas in mind.  Otherwise, it’s quite possible to read a novel every week, for life, and have them all turn out to be Perry Rhodan.  Explaining why this might not be a good thing gets back to ancient Greek philosophy bits that I’d guess I don’t have to get into.

By on 01/26/09 at 08:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Morgan’s actually trying to say something about masculinity in a way that Stan Lee wasn’t, but I guess I’ll give you Zelazny. (Maybe for Zelazny, it’d be better to go with something more surface-y, focus on the diction...)

Anyway: I’m following you as far—looking backwards—as wanting to find at the end of your life that you haven’t spent it all reading bad books, but I’m still getting lost somewhere between there and the taxonomical exercise. Is classifying an SF book as literary or subliterary something you can do in time to save yourself the effort of reading it? Or rather, once you’ve thrown out all the SF books that are obviously subliterary—something that doesn’t require a clear idea of what literary SF is, so much as it requires a sense of rhythm and an eye for lazy writing—is literary/subliterary a sufficiently fine sieve to be useful in separating what’s left? And even once we’re assured that we’re not wasting our lives, do we have an answer to the HHHPs, or do we just have the basis for an (admittedly helpful) inner glow of self-confidence to keep us warm while we nod at them and smile and say nothing? Maybe I’m too close to the problem.

By David Moles on 01/26/09 at 10:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Morgan is trying to say something about masculinity, yes, it just isn’t an exceptionally unusual or complicated thing.  His hero deeply sees the problems with war and brutality, disapproves of them, yet—on the authority of a female, feminist anarchist, of course—feels justified in (in the first book) going on a murder spree that permanently kills all the local members of a criminal enterprise that was involved in torturing him.  Scratch any SF book that fans seem to have some unusual emotional connection to, and you’ll find a book that gives the reader virtuous reasons for vicariously enjoying something that they not only know is wrong, but that the main character thinks is wrong but “has” to do.  See: Ender’s Game and genocide, Shadow of the Torturer and um, better stop there lest they come out of the woodwork, but there was a lot written on this on Acephalous, the Thomas Covenant series and masochism, etc.  Yeah, Takeshi is always going on about how men are sort of evolutionarily preprogrammed for this kind of thing and wish they could get away from it, but conveniently, due to his own training, he can never really break free of it himself.  So each book can go on as per usual.

The taxonomical exercise is an aid towards criticism, I suppose.  I read all sorts of sub-literary books because I enjoy them and because late at night I’m too tired to read anything challenging.  Taxonomy, for me, is the first step towards considering why I think that book A is literary and book B is not.  The judgement comes first, then I see if I can find general reasons for the judgement that tell me something about the works themselves.  These reasons in turn lead to better readings of future works, as they are verified or contradicted.

By on 01/26/09 at 10:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adding to above: I forgot one of my favorite examples of the “sorry-I-have-to-kill-you” syndrome, or whatever it’s called.  (Theory heads, got any names?  This seems like the kind of thing that must have been thoroughly theorized.) In the E.E. “Doc” Smith Skylark series, the heroes just have to commit galaxy-spanning genocide.  But the people setting up the genocide machine are too morally advanced to be able to kill people.  So they bring in one of the less morally advanced members of their alliance—someone from a more primitive though space-traveling culture, who still believes in duels of honor, and so on—and he proudly starts the machine that will kill all their enemies.  It’s a division-of-labor thing.  They have the knowledge that comes with really advanced culture; he has the sadly primitive but necessary ability to press the button.  I really laughed for a long time when I first read it.

By on 01/26/09 at 10:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, the Jack Bauer move is always an easy way to get cheap I R SERIOS RITER points in guy SF.

I didn’t mean in the Kovacs books specifically (the second and third of which I think are relatively disposable anyway). I’m not saying you have to read Black Man / Thirteen or The Steel Remains, but read about them and maybe you’ll see what I’m getting at. Whether what he’s saying is actually interesting or whether he’s successful at saying it is to a certain extent in the eye of the beholder, and yes, there is a case to be made that all he’s doing is coming up with ever more complicated justifications for Richard Morgan protagonists to behave like Richard Morgan protagonists. (I’m not trying to do criticism here, just to say that there isn’t by hypothesis no criticism to be done.)

I can see how trying to make sense of what makes you think some of the books you read are good books and others are not leads to more engaged readings of other books, I guess. Though my personal preference would be to chop it up smaller than that and ask what’s good and bad about the books I read, or better yet what the books I read are good and bad at. Still leaves me mumbling and shuffling my feet outside the BBC2 studio, though.

By David Moles on 01/26/09 at 11:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, I’m not saying I should dismiss his later books unread.  Although, since I can’t read every book, I do view it as a bad sign that I’ve read his first three and not seen any literariness, if that’s what I’m looking for.  The odds do go down, so to speak.  Although Moorcock wrote something like 50 non-literary books with variations on the same emo trope (Elric cries as he looks the dead body of his lover / the city he grew up in that he had to burn down / his latest dead friend he had to kill.  That makes him so sad!), before he started writing what I think qualifies as literary work.  So it isn’t impossible.

Starting with “what are they good and bad at” is starting in the wrong place, at least for me.  I think that you want to start at the elemental “it’s pornography because I know porn when I see it” level—which applies to literary works too, basically— then go to more rationalized readings.  Starting with “what are they good or bad at”, you have too much of a chance to commit to your theories first.

Why does the help you to answer the HHHP?  Because, doing it, you develop our own ideas about what makes SF literary, ideas that aren’t simply cribbed from Clute or whoever.  The guy who thinks that the whole thing is dismissible then comes off as a provincial, someone with a standard cultural opinion that he’s never bothered to think about or challenge.  It doesn’t really matter whether you then mention something to him or not; you have at least internally demonstrated that he is wrong.

By on 01/26/09 at 12:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Yeah, the Jack Bauer move is always an easy way to get cheap I R SERIOS RITER points in guy SF.”

After thinking about it a bit, I don’t think that this is an accurate description.  The anachronism of identifying it with 24 aside, a syndrome that’s identifiable in the Pulp era can hardly be a way to look serious.

There’s something in Lem’s book The Futurological Congress that might as well be about this.  In that, a purveyor of drugs that produce elaborately plotted hallucinations tells the protagonist that people want to commit crimes, but that inevitably, even in fantasy, someone asks “Why are you doing this?”, and the swing of a crowbar just isn’t satisfying as an answer.  So his business is to create a plausible rationale for why this not just necessary, but actually good.

Why does it come up if SF a lot?  Because SF’s readership has always been primarily adolescent, even since it self-identified as SF, and yet even back in the Pulp era, there was the feeling that after all, other people might not think like we do.  Someone writing an African-adventure novel could just reply with the crowbar of unquestioned colonialism, so to speak, but in SF, there was some question about why super-advanced civilizations still seemed to be based on the age-old principle of “They did something bad, so let’s kill all of them, or maybe just some of them as a lesson to the others.” So this became an intrinsic thread running through SF.  It’s not necessary that it be used by an unskilled or adolescent writer; it’s enough (as in the Gene Wolfe case) that the writer is familiar enough with their audience to play with it.

If you want to learn more about how to read SF this way, there is a two-book course.  (Both of them literary works, in my opinion.) First pick up Norman Spinrad’s best book, The Iron Dream.  Force yourself to read the whole thing, rather than stopping after the first chapter with “Hmm, this is clever, but I see what he’s getting at already.” This will act like aversion therapy for your inner fanboy, like that scene in A Clockwork Orange.  Then pick up Iain Banks’ best book, Use of Weapons.  Note how the protagonist, who at first seems to be the perfect action hero with early hints that he is actually the perfect Greek hero, has become something else by the end of the book.  And that should do it.

By on 01/26/09 at 01:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ouch! Consider me successfully patronized.

Rich, I first read Use of Weapons more than fifteen years ago and The Iron Dream at least five. And “what they’re good at and what they’re bad at” isn’t where I started, it’s where I’ve gotten to after running up against the limits of stuffing whole books into pigeonholes—not to mention the limits of congratulating myself on my secret knowledge that my taste and judgement are superior to my interlocutor’s.

I can’t tell if you’re arguing that 24 is not aimed at adolescents (of all ages), or arguing that the fact that unclear thinkers believe it raises serious ethical issues even when it’s just repeating Mickey Spillane is somehow different from the fact that unclear thinkers believe Card is raising serious ethical issues even when he’s just repeating Doc Smith, so I guess I’ll stop there.

By David Moles on 01/26/09 at 04:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wasn’t actually trying to be patronizing, just kind of flippant.

But what I was arguing is actually that you were wrong if you meant it that writers write what you call the “Jack Bauer move” because they want to look serious.  I really don’t think that they have such ambitions towards seriousness, based on the rest of their work.  Instead, I think that they write they way because it is expected by the fans, who want a dose of justification for their fantasies.

By on 01/26/09 at 07:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If anyone is interested in the above-mentioned readings of the New Wave back catalogue, I have something on Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse here.

By on 01/27/09 at 01:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So, meh, I don’t seem to be falling in love with Anathem.  There’s a lot to admire, but there’s one core way in which I think it’s a bad book.  It flatters the reader.  It renders difficult stuff simple.  I can’t be the only person the world to think that a better business of art is bringing out the difficulty inherent in ordinary stuff.

Depends whether you mean that Anathem a) makes difficult-to-understand stuff easy to understand - which is an entirely laudable aim - or b) pretends that complex stuff is really simple - which isn’t really.

By on 01/27/09 at 08:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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