Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Artworks

In the early 1970s New English Library reissued a selection of the late Brian Aldiss's novels and short-story collections, with fabulous covers by Bruce Pennington. Here are seven of them (I'm missing The Interpreter).








Saturday, August 12, 2017

Undefining


Austral is a science fiction novel - I'm a science fiction writer, it's set in the future, what more needs to be said? Except that these days not all novels set in the future are science fiction. Some, for instance, deal with the effects of climate change on the world in general and human society and the human pysche in particular, and although the effects of climate change are beginning to accelerate right here, right now, the worst effects will be manifest in the next couple of hundred years. So much  fiction dealing with climate change is by default set in the future. But it isn't science fiction. It's cli-fi.

I don't think it's a very useful term. Not just because it echoes sci-fi, often used as a label for the worst examples within the science-fiction genre by those who ignore the preference for the term SF by those who read and write the stuff, but also because the person who coined it is something of a jealous gatekeeper, policing its use, deciding ex cathedra what's in and what's out. It's less a genre, more a marketing tool, and much of it (especially the Young Adult fiction) is both dystopian and apocalyptic. Climate change as another excuse for winnowing the excess population and staging adventures in a simplified post-civilisation board game.

There's another sub-genre, solarpunk, which is much more optimistic, but currently there are few fictions that fall inside its boundaries, and it tends to scant the seriousness and difficulties of the immediate problems of climate change. But if Austral had to fall into a category I'd rather it shaded towards solarpunk than dour cli-fi dystopias. There are all kinds of problems caused by climate change in Austral's future, but its inhabitants are making the best of what's happened -- most especially by the establishment of a new nation in the Antarctic Peninsula, and greening tracts of new land which have been exposed by the great melting. Terrestrial terraforming, or a variation of the speculative extreme gardening I described in The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun.

Mostly, it's about these two people I know, trying to find an escape route across those emergent landscapes:

Close to the end of the day the girl and I drove up out of the forest and crossed the broad snow-covered saddle between the Cayley Valley and Blériot Basin. A solitary peak stood off to the north, hard pinkish light glowing on its flanks, and the wind blew cold and clean and the last of the sunlight turned the snow crust’s icy lace into a carpet of diamonds.
We’re simple creatures. A change in the weather or a glimpse of a distant panorama can transform our mood in an instant. Looking across snowy ridges towards that mountain peak I was struck head to toe by a tingling charge of exhilaration. We had escaped, I was about to take up the path Mama and I had once followed, and this time it would all come right.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Extrasolar


Imminently due from PS Publishing, Extrasolar, edited by Nick Gevers: an anthology of original stories inspired by the discovery, over the past twenty-five years, of the rich and populous zoo of exoplanets orbiting other stars. Terrific line-up of authors and stories. Also one by me, inspired by the difficulties and craziness of field research, and a James Bond film.
  • Holdfast – Alastair Reynolds
  • Shadows of Eternity – Gregory Benford
  • A Game of Three Generals – Aliette de Bodard
  • The Bartered Planet – Paul Di Filippo
  • Come Home – Terry Dowling
  • The Residue of Fire – Robert Reed
  • Thunderstone – Matthew Hughes
  • Journey to the Anomaly – Ian Watson
  • Canoe -- Nancy Kress
  • The Planet Woman By M.V. Crawford – Lavie Tidhar
  • Arcturean Nocturne – Jack McDevitt
  • Life Signs – Paul McAuley
  • The Fall of the House of Kepler – Ian R. MacLeod
  • The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse – Kathleen Ann Goonan
More details over at the PS Publishing web site, where you can pre-order or even buy the book.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Austral Coming Through



Bound proof copies of Austral have arrived: the penultimate stage in the alchemical process of thought to words to book. A few early reactions:

'Bleakly beautiful, Austral is both a finely-honed character study and a powerful evocation of landscape and change, delivered with icy clarity. This is the kind of fiction we will need as the Anthropocene takes hold.' Alastair Reynolds

'An exquisite human story set on an undiscovered continent of our near future. Austral may be McAuley’s best yet.' Stephen Baxter

And over on Goodreads, this from Joanne Harris:

'I was sent this proof by the publishers, and oh boy, it's a good one. A cracking setup; great writing; great pacing; a genuinely fresh narrative voice, and for once - hooray! - a male author writing a complex, first-person female narrator who is neither a broflake's wet-dream, nor a wooden stereotype. Austral is big, strong, powerful, and yet with real vulnerabilities; a flawed and relatable heroine with agency, feelings and spirit.'

Monday, July 03, 2017

Soft Launch

A while back I promised a Kindle edition of my short story collection A Very British History. And then actual life intervened, and the delay in publication stretched into very nearly a year. Now it has finally gone live, and is available for purchase in the UK, the US, and all points north, south, east, and west of the Pecos.

It's a look back at the first twenty-five years of my career (and was first published by PS Publishing in 2013: I really am as old as dirt) - from my first publication in Interzone to 'The Choice', which won the Theodore Sturgeon Award. Because it's a best-of collection, some of the twenty-three stories have been published in Little Machines, Stories from the Quiet War, and Life after Wartime. So if you've bought any of those and feel that you don't need to buy this as well, I quite understand. But if you're new to my stuff, this is a selection of what I think are the best stories in the first half of my career. There are also notes on every story, and a short biographical essay, 'My Secret Super-Power.'

Table of Contents

'Little Ilya and Spider and Box'
'The Temporary King'
'Cross Road Blues'
'Gene Wars'
'Prison Blues'
'Children of the Revolution'
'Recording Angel'
'Second Skin'
'All Tomorrow's Parties'
'17'
'Sea Change, With Monsters'
'How We Lost the Moon, A True Story by Frank W. Allen'
'A Very British History'
'The Two Dicks'
'Meat'
'Rocket Boy'
'The Thought War'
'City of the Dead'
'Little Lost Robot'
'Shadow Life'
'The Choice'
'Searching for Van Gogh at the End of the World'
'Karl and the Ogre'
'My Secret Super-Power.'

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Headbanging

Currently working on the proofs for Austral, with the usual feeling that I am bound to miss some trivial but really annoying error. That never goes away.

And have just finished the penultimate draft of a short story, the first in a year or so. It took a while, mostly because I tried to work out the consequences of a confluence of ideas about climate change, artificial life, a closed community, so on, without a clear understanding of the pivotal character. It wasn't until I began to get her right - to see how she saw her world - that the narrative began to acquire its own logic. It still needs work, but at least it now has a real, rather than a forced, ending. Headbanging against a stubborn narrative that refuses to crack open? That never goes away either.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Award Season


Interrupting a small silence while I try to finish a short story to announce that Into Everywhere has been shortlisted for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Thrilled, needless to say, and especially honoured to be included with some very fine novels:

2017 Campbell Award Finalists

Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter The Medusa Chronicles
Don DeLillo Zero K
Kij Johnson The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
Paul J. McAuley Into Everywhere
Nisi Shawl Everfair
Tricia Sullivan Occupy Me
Tade Thompson Rosewater
Lavie Tidhar Central Station
Colson Whitehead The Underground Railroad
Aliya Whiteley The Arrival of Missives
Rick Wilber Alien Morning
Ben Winters Underground Airlines
John Nicholas Wood Azanian Bridges

Friday, May 26, 2017

Quickening Antarctica

Credit: Matt Amesbury
Currently, only a minute fraction of Antarctica is occupied by plant life, but a new study has shown that may soon change: even modest temperature increases along the northerly curl of the Antarctic Peninsula have dramatically affected the growth and spread of moss banks. Matt Amesbury, one of the investigators, says that if this continues the Peninsula 'will be a much greener place in the future.'

Which is of considerable interest to me, as Austral is set in that much greener place:
I was driving over flat terrain cracked into big polygonal plates and lightly covered in snow. House-sized boulders, erratics dumped by retreating ice, were dotted about like a giant’s game of marbles. Off to the left, a line of trees intermittently visible through gusts of snow marked the course of the river. More trees thickened ahead, and quite soon I was driving through the fringes of the forest, wallowing up and down low ridges, swerving left or right as trees smashed out of the darkness. Crooked spires no more than ten or twelve metres high, bent and warped by snow and ice and wind. I remembered hiking with Mama through a forest just like it the summer we escaped, remembered columns of dusty sunlight slanting between pine trees, moss and ferns thick on the ground. A green cathedral that seemed as old as the world, but had been planted out by ecopoets just forty years before.
Suggesting that climate change will make Antarctica more hospitable to life isn't a radical prediction, but it's a little disconcerting to discover that it's already happening. Here in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, history's drumbeat is quickening. Worst-case scenarios are too often exceeded. Change is the new normal. Reality threatens to outrace imagination.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Something I'm Doing Later This Year


Friday, May 12, 2017

Alien: Covenant


Although touted as a sequel to the venerable first film in the franchise, the opening scene of Alien: Covenant, with a sophomoric, inconclusive discussion about God and creation between Michael Fassbender and Guy Pierce, firmly identifies it as a direct sequel to Prometheus. Fassbender reprises his role as David, the android whose motives trumped those of the human exploration crew in Prometheus; he also plays a sibling android, Walter, who is part of the crew of the Covenant. A colony ship that, after receiving a signal containing a distorted version of John Denver's 'Country Roads', diverts its course to an Earth-like planet in nearby star system and the expected xenomorph mayhem.

The film is beautifully designed and shot, with sets that nicely reproduce the workaday retro interiors of the early films, and a palette of blues and dark greens and deep shadows for exterior shots that evoke the Gothic romanticism Caspar David Friedrich's paintings. But as in Friedrich's metaphysical landscapes, the human figures are the least significant elements. Billy Crudup's acting captain makes much of the fact that he's a man of faith, but his confrontation with David's delusions of godhead is an inconclusive fizzle, and apart from Danny McBride's Tennessee and Katherine Waterson's Daniels (who nicely evokes Ripley's gritty determination), the rest of the crew are, even if you've watched the online prologue that isn't included in the onscreen film, mostly two-dimensional cyphers. Meat for the Wagnerian plans of David, who snared them by broadcasting that signal from an alien city littered with corpses. There's inventively gory body-horror, some good jump-in-your-seat shocks, and plenty of fan-pleasing references to earlier films, but stringing together variations of iconic scenes fails to create a coherent or interesting story. It's not the worst film in the franchise, but its final revelations undercut mythology with trite and unnecessary explanations, and the slingshot ending isn't aimed at the Nostromo, but at the continuation of the far less interesting and original Promethean trilogy, and David's ongoing issues with his dead dad.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Close Encounters

I encountered many fictional aliens before my only face-to-face meeting with a person from another planet; so many, back in the 1960s, when I was growing up, that I can't now remember the first. It definitely wasn't the Mekon, because I wasn't a reader of The Eagle and Dan Dare (as far as comics were concerned, I was still fighting the Second World War with The Victor), and could well have been Fireball XL5's Zoonie the Lazoon, a round-headed big-eyed big-eared precursor of Jar Jar Binks, although more than fifty years later I remember the programme only for its opening credits, with the titular spacecraft's ungainly launch along a monorail track. Fireball XL5's run ended in 1963, and my first clear memory of an alien dates from late in the same year, in the first episode of Doctor Who. Not the Daleks, who featured in the programme's second story, nor even the Doctor himself, but an unearthly child in trouble at school: Susan, the Doctor's granddaughter.

After that, it's all a bit of a blur, from H.G. Wells's Martians to Star Trek's Mr Spock and the monoliths of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was even a brief dalliance with UFO literature. My mother's family came from south coast resort town of Bognor Regis, and we often holidayed there, staying with my great aunt, who ran a traditional boarding house. Unlike the rest of her guests, we weren't kicked out for the day, a bonus in the thundery last weeks of August 1970, when it rained every day: torrential downpours that swept the beaches clean and drove holidaymakers into the slot machine arcades, bingo halls and seafront shelters, where they huddled in their pacamacs, picking at sodden chips and watching the grey windlashed waves roll past the deserted pier. There was nothing else for it: I joined the local library, one of the first in Britain with a computerised checkout; the ticket was a slab of plastic much like the memory cards Mr Spock inserted into the Enterprise's bridge computer. Most of the titles in the science-fiction section duplicated those of my home town's library, but there was a long shelf of UFO books and I steadily read my way through that, noting that the Venerians and many other extraterrestrial visitors were, much like the crew of the Enterprise, here to help. Friendly humanoid gods who'd visited Earth to impart cosmic wisdom and reassure us that our little local difficulty with the everyday threat of nuclear annihilation would soon pass. Many were caricatures of Californian hippies: Orthon, the extraterrestrial mentor of the Godfather of UFO literature, George Adamanski, had tanned skin and long blond hair, and Adamski notes that 'his trousers were not like mine.' Flared patchwork jeans, perhaps. Anyway, I absorbed this idea of helpful humanoid aliens imparting inscrutable wisdom, and more than forty years later used my own version in the two Jackaroo novels, Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere. Books I couldn't have written without the help of Mr Adamski and his otherwordly visitors, Bognor Regis library and much summer thunder.

But I was going to tell you about my face-to-face meeting with an alien. It was also in August: August 21st 1990, to be precise, in Edinburgh. One of my friends -- I'll call him Julian, because that's his name -- worked for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, and I spent an evening with him before I set out for the 48th World SF Convention in the Hague. Julian had passes for one of the concerts, and as we walked through the warm twilight from the Festival's offices to the venue he casually swung a plastic supermarket bag. We badged our way to the back stage, and that's where I had my first and so far only encounter with a man from another planet: the headliner of the concert, Sun Ra. Born Herman Poole Blunt, in Alabama, the jazz bandleader had long ago revealed that he was actually from Saturn (which George Adamski had once visited, when he attended a cosmic conference), here to study Earth and preach peace. He was enthroned in the busy green room, inscrutable, robed, kingly, a still point amongst the bustle as members of his Arkestra came and went. After a short consultation with one of his aides he beckoned us into his presence. Julian presented the plastic bag and Sun Ra examined the contents -- twenty thousand pounds in cash, the fee for the concert. Satisfied, he handed the bag to the aide and raised his hand in blessing. A blessing from a wise unearthly observer I'm happy to pass on to you.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Transect: Hammersmith to Richmond












Thursday, April 27, 2017

Rivers Run Through It


Rivers braid the coasts of the warmer, wetter Antarctic Peninsula of Austral. Rivers fed by meltwater lakes and the stubs of remnant glaciers. Braided marshland deltas. Rivers whose valleys and basins have been gardened with forests:
Somewhat past noon we encountered a second river, running broad and shallow over a bed of white pebbles, faintly smoking in the frigid air. We crossed it easily and parked up on the far side and brewed tea, black with the last of the sugar stirred into it, and ate a scant lunch of shrivelled bearberries picked along the river’s edge. Sunlight sparkled on the water and on the far bank a Siberian larch clothed in flame-red leaves flared in the sombre shade of conifers. The sheltering hush of the forest was broken only by the rippling rush of the river and the creak of trees pinched by cold and the occasional soft slide of snow from an overloaded bough. It was as if we were the first or last people in the world.
A new survey has shown that there are already plenty of rivers in Antarctica. In summer, bare mountain slopes and stretches of blue ice absorb sunlight's heat and feed seasonal drainage systems that cut through ice and run to the high margins of the coast, and plunge to floating ice shelves. As Antarctica grows ever warmer it's likely that these outflows of meltwater will increase in extent, perhaps accelerating loss of ice shelves that presently protect the outflows of glaciers from intrusion of warmer ocean currents. Meltwater melting more ice and creating more meltwater, a positive feedback loop. Seasonal streams becoming permanent, running across bedrock exposed by retreating glaciers and depleted ice sheets. As usual, fiction about the future is anticipated by its present.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Blue. Sky. Thinking.

See also: novelists.
'While editing directly from life, photographers have found it too difficult to see simultaneously both the blue and the sky.'
John  Szarkowski, Introduction to William Eggleston's Guide.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Tomb Taxonomy (repost)

From Into Everywhere:

Most of the tombs were small, and most had collapsed or been buried by wind-blown sand that over thousands of years had cemented into friable rock. In certain places, tombs had been built on older tombs, creating tells ten or twenty strata deep. Many were empty, but fragments of Elder Culture technology, usually sympathy stones or the mica chips that contained the entangled pairs of electrons that underpinned q-phone technology, could be found in some, and tesserae were embedded in the walls of others. No one knew if the tesserae had been created by the Ghostkeepers, or if the Ghostkeepers had excavated them from ruins left by other Elder Cultures and used them as decoration or markers for reproductive fitness. Almost all of them were inert and of only archaeological interest; those that still generated active eidolons were highly prized.

Like all tomb raiders, Lisa and Willie had eked out a living from sales of mundane finds while dreaming of discovering the kind of jackpot that would kickstart a new industry or technology and make them so rich that they would never have to work again. They sifted through the middens of abandoned hive-rat nests – the fierce little creatures dug deep and sometimes brought up artefacts. They found their way into intact chambers where eidolons might kindle from shadows and lamplight. When everything else failed, they sank shafts into the mounds of collapsed tombs. Willie disliked digging. Not just because it was hard work, although that was a consideration, but because it disturbed what he called ‘the flow’.


The City of the Dead was a sargasso of history, according to him, with strange tides and currents, backwaters and eddies. Everything flowing into everything else.
 

If they found no intact tombs or abandoned nests, Willie preferred to dowse rather than dig. He would wander over the parched landscape with two lengths of copper wire bent into a pair of L-rods, delicately pinching the short arms between thumbs and forefingers and narrowly watching the quiver and dip of the long arms. Circling a spot when the rods began to twitch, insisting that Lisa start digging if they violently see-sawed.
 

Willie’s dowsing had a surprisingly good hit rate – slightly better than chance, according to Lisa’s Chi-squared tests – but he preferred spelunking, and so did Lisa. Finding their way into spaces untouched for thousands of years, where the psychic traces of the creatures that had built them yet remained. She remembered spiral tombs augered into the earth. She remembered labyrinths of broken stone. She remembered one huge, cool, bottle- shaped chamber lit by a shaft of sunlight from a high crevice. As Willie had climbed down the swaying rope ladder, orange fronds clumped in the splash of sunlight on the floor had suddenly broken up and scurried off in every direction, seeking the safety of shadows. A kind of colonial beetle-thing, it turned out, with symbiotic plants growing on its shells. Lisa remembered another chamber, this one long and low, where eidolons had exploded around them like bats: after they’d sold the tesserae that generated them, she and Willie had lived high on the hog for two months.
 

She remembered the time the truck’s LEAF battery had run out of charge at the western edge of the City of the Dead, a long way from the nearest settlement, with the eroded range of mountains that marked the edge of the Badlands shimmering at the horizon. Willie had pulled his trail bike from the load bed and roared off with the battery strapped behind him. He’d said that he’d be directly back, but a day passed, and another, and there was no sign of him and Lisa couldn’t pick up a phone signal. She discovered that she didn’t mind being stranded. She had plenty of food, enough water to last a couple of weeks. She slept in the back of the truck’s crew cab during the day and watched the starry sky at night. Dissolved into the antique silence of the desert. Looking back, she’d never been happier.
 

On the fourth day a hot wind out the south blew white sand from the crests of sand dunes. The sky grew milky and the sun faded to a dull smear and the horizon closed in. The truck’s door seals couldn’t keep out the dust and Lisa had to tie a handkerchief over her nose and mouth. Everything was covered with a fine white bloom. Her eyes itched madly.

Willie drove out of the tail end of the storm towards sunset. He’d been caught up in a business deal, he said, but it hadn’t panned out. Lisa didn’t bother to ask. It might have been a lead on Elder Culture ruins or a poker game, a girl or a spell in jail. In the morning they mounted the recharged LEAF battery and drove to Joe’s Corner and bought water and food and went on.
 

Those were the days of their lives until they finally hit their jackpot. Until the Bad Trip.

 (First posted 18th March 2016)

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Transect: Putney to Hammersmith








Thursday, March 23, 2017

Life


Impossible to avoid comparisons with Alien and Gravity when writing about this swift, wildly uneven film about a body-invading alien stalking the crew of the International Space Station. But although it has an A-list cast and strains for profundity, this is really a B monster movie with some excellent special effects. The set-up is neat and swift, although the execution is features the kind of logic holes that pepper the script. A return capsule containing a sample gouged from the Martian surface is knocked off course by an unlikely swarm of space debris, but not very far off course: Ryan Rogers's gung-ho engineer is able to catch it using a Canada arm during an EVA just off the ISS. The soil sample contains a slumbering single-cell organism that when woken swiftly grows in size, strength and smarts. Nicknamed Calvin (after the school of a child vox-popped about the excitement of the discovery of Martian life), it escapes from its containment in a nicely tense scene where it crushes the hand of Hugh, the hapless British biologist (Ariyon Bakare), and stalks the crew as, with communications to Earth cut off, they try to recapture it.

Trouble is, while the Martian monster is nicely rendered, the script fails to make any of the crew - Jake Gyllenhaal's experienced astronaut and Rebecca Ferguson's microbiologist, backed up by Hiroyuki Sanada as a systems engineer and Olga Dihovichnaya as the mission commander - especially memorable or interesting. Despite some cool zero-gravity ballet in the cramped confines of the ISS, and a good deal of desperate hatch-slamming, it's hard to care about their peril or their fate, and the finale is almost fatally compromised by a great dollop of saccharine sentiment squeezed out of the children's book Goodnight Moon. Almost, but not quite: at the very end there's a good, grim twist that's true to the DNA of Life's B-movie creature feature progenitors.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Meanwhile . . .


Here's the cover rough for Austral, due out in October this year. Unlike any novel I've written before, according to my editor. That's a good thing, yes?

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

R.I.P.




Georgina McAuley, née Hawtrey-Woore, 1966 - 2017

Monday, January 02, 2017

Films Watched July -- December 2016

See also.

Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood (1992)
Heart of Glass, Werner Hertzog (1976)
The Shooting, Monte Hellman (1966)
Ride in the Whirlwind, Monte Hellman (1966)
The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn (2016)
Wolf Creek 2, Greg McLean (2013)
Ghostbusters, Paul Feig (2016)
Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Werner Herzog (1972)
The Mission, Roland Joffe (1986)
Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino (1980)
Jason Bourne, Paul Greengrass (2016)
Suicide Squad, David Ayer (2016)
The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino (1978)
The Firm, Alan Clarke (1989)
Lady Snowblood, Toshiya Fujita (1973)
Ant-Man, Peyton Reed (2015)
The Paperboy, Lee Daniels (2012)
Wiener Dog, Todd Solenz (2016)
Eddie the Eagle, Dexter Fletcher (2016)
Carriers, Àlex and David Pastor (2009)
Five Dolls for an August Moon, Mario Bava (1970) 
Son of Saul, László Nemes (2015)
Room 237, Rodney Ascher (2012)
Zodiac, David Fincher (2007)
Lo and Behold, Werner Hertzog (2016)
Gerry, Gus Van Sant (2002)
Hell or High Water, David Mackenzie (2016)
Arrival, Denis Villeneuve (2016)
Captain America: Civil War, Joe Russo and Anthony Russo (2016)
The Raid: Redemption, Gareth Evans (2011)
The Raid 2, Gareth Evans (2014)
Kvinden i buret, Mikkel Nørgaard (2013)
Hypernormalisation, Adam Curtis (2016)
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Edward Zwick (2016)
American Honey, Andrea Arnold (2016)
Ivan's Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky (1962)
When Marnie Was There, Hiromasa Yonebayashi (2014)
Allied, Robert Zemeckis (2016)
The Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky (1986) 
The Lone Ranger, Gore Verbinski (2013)
Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford (2016)
Dheepan, Jacques Audiard (2015)
Silence, Martin Scorsese (2016)
Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson (2016)
LaLa Land, Damien Chazelle (2016)
Fences, Denzel Washington (2016)
The Lady in the Van, Nicholas Hytner (2015)
Pride, Matthew Warchus (2014)
The Founder, John Lee Hancock (2016)
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