Category Archives: Sci-Fi/Horror/Fantasy

Blowing up the George Lucas Canon (In a Good Way)

 

A New Dawn is the first Star Wars novel to excite me since High School. They are pedestrian at best in their writing, and I always had better books to read. However, this novel, and the cartoon Rebels featuring the same characters, are the first introduction to the new post-Lucas Star Wars universe under Disney. As The Empire Strikes Back (and the Clone Wars, and Knights of the Old Republic) prove, Star Wars is best the less George Lucas has to do with it. As an unrepentant fanboy, I couldn’t wait to see what was in store.

A Note on Star Wars Canon

For those of you who don’t care, skip this section. But Star Wars canon (or, more accurately, its demise) was a big reason for my excitement about this book. I used to work for a gaming company that published Star Wars material, and canon mattered a great deal.

All Star Wars information ever presented publically in anything was put into a database known as the Holocron and assigned one of five levels of veracity. Each level of canon superseded the levels below in legitimacy if there were contradictions. The most recent versions of the films were the ultimate canon (G-canon, IE George canon). That meant yes, Greedo still shot first.

The whole canon idea was a valiant, well-intentioned mess.

Disney did away with canon. They announced the movies and Clone Wars cartoons were immovable objects, and put all previous material under the “Legendary” heading. New books, movies, shows, comics and games will be coordinated. That means boo, no Heir to the Empire, yay, no Vector Prime and double yay, no more canon chaos. Everything new is planned and holds equal weight in Star Wars history.

If you skipped the above section, you had a significant other way before I did.

The (Spoiler Free) Plot

A New Dawn takes place twenty years after Revenge of the Sith. The Jedi have been hunted to near extinction and the Republic has fully transformed into the Galactic Empire. Kanan Jarrus, a Jedi padawan who escaped death during the purge, is now a sarcastic drifter plagued by the death of the entire Jedi order. He survives by hiding his Jedi skills and never forming attachments, moving constantly from job to job. On the distant mining world Gorse he encounters a Twi’lek pilot named Hera who is gathering intel for the nascent Rebellion. She follows the cyborg Count Vidian, an Imperial bureaucrat dispatched to squeeze every resource from Gorse for the new Imperial armada. Vidian’s tactics against the local populace are brutal, and soon Kanan and Hera lead a small group of locals to save the planet and thwart Vidian’s plans.

The Verdict

The prose itself is unassuming and straightforward, which is to be expected. But I don’t consume Star Wars to appreciate the art. I consume it for the adventure, the grand sweep of a space opera in a galaxy far, far away. To my glee, A New Dawn delivers as promised.

Kanan and Hera are both well fleshed-out characters with clear motivations and backgrounds. Both, but Hera in particular, are mysterious enough that the cartoon has ample room to expand. Kanan plays the rogue well, trying to remain flippant and aloof while unable to hide his altruistic bent, or shed his inner pain. His struggle to obscure his Jedi abilities struggles with the reader’s wish to see him throw stuff around with the Force and whip out his lightsaber. The two protagonists are robust enough that I can forgive the “unrequited love interest by the boy” relationship stereotype. The characters stand well on their own.

Count Vidian is not your stock “more machine than man” villain, either. At first I recoiled at him being an efficiency administrator (horrors of Episode One “trade disputes” and other boring conflicts still haunt me), but when his first act of efficiency is to beat an incompetent middle manager to death in front of his stormtroopers, my fears evaporated. He embodies the terror of the Empire in all its dark, ruthless glory. His backstory and motivations also lend him an element of sympathy, which all good villains need. When other rival players in the Empire start back-stabbing him for their own gain, at times you root for Vidian to prevail–even if prevailing means he blows up an entire planet.

The supporting cast is just as engaging. Not only do the two protagonists’ accomplices stand well on their own, they also represent archetypes of the galaxy’s rebels. Some are more than willing to fight, some only do so when the Empire wrongs them, and some are forced into rebellion and are reluctant to the very end. The characters in this book are a microcosm of the Rebellion itself. Those on the side of the Empire serve as the same, from ambitious captains to government stooges to leaders not afraid to betray a rival for their own gain.

All this works within an adventure yarn that never slows down. This is a page turner, moving swiftly from crisis to crisis in every storyline. It also maintains a gritty and dark edge that I found welcome. The ever-present Empire is always spying to catch dissidents, always preparing to crush opposition, always there to enforce its will. The novel portrays the forces of evil in a more deadly light than any of the Star Wars prequels did.

Star Wars: A New Dawn is no scholarly piece of literature, but it has no aspiration to be. It’s a fun, fast-paced space adventure in a galaxy desperate for a refresh. It checks all the boxes that a Star Wars story needs to. If this novel is the blueprint for things to come, this galaxy far, far away is getting brighter and brighter.

William Reid Schmadeka is a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home father of three. When not writing, editing or reading sci fi and fantasy (or changing diapers and cleaning up after a toddler), he loves cooking and playing board games.

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Classic Fridays: The Forever War is for the Ages.

I am going to make a bold statement.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Not just one of the best science fiction novels–one of the best novels, period. More than Dune, more than Foundation or Hyperion, and yes, more than Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I enjoyed it with the same fervor as other better-known works like To Kill a Mockingbird and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yet to my surprise, not only have not many people read it, they haven’t even heard of it.

So let’s fix that.


The Forever War
follows soldier William Mandella through an interstellar war against a seldom seen and barely understood enemy. In actual non-Star Trek space travel, to reach the enemy takes decades, even centuries. But thanks to relativity, Mandella ages only a handful of months due to time dilation at near light speed. (If you would like a detailed explanation of how this works, pick up a copy of Stephen Hawking’s seminal book A Brief History of Time.) Mandella experiences a millennium of war in objective time, which he subjectively experiences as a few years. He loses everyone he knows and loves to death, either through war or time, and suffers changes in government, the military, sexuality, and even language every time he returns home. And each and every time he returns, he is promoted, told he must serve for one more mission, and sent out again to a pointless war that claims the life of almost every soldier that fights in it.

Mandella is a fabulous character and a great filter to show this war to the reader. He starts out as a private in the 1990s, and by the end of the book a thousand years later, he’s a major after a few years of military experience and a total of four actual battles. He’s a war hero, the only surviving soldier from the war’s beginning, and is often treated as a quaint, eccentric relic of centuries past. At his heart he is a pacifist, and the last thing he wants to be is a hero or a leader. But the one time he returns to Earth leaves the service, society has changed so much that he re-enlists because he can’t adjust. His sexual orientation also adds complications along the way. At times homosexuality is condoned (a shocking idea in the 70s), encouraged or even mandated for population control, and he has to adjust to those attitudes each time he returns from a mission.

Haldeman’s prose is smooth and well-paced, and he does a fabulous job of handling the science in the book. Since time dilation is the major underpinning of the plot, he has to. One of my favorite scenes in the book involves a ship traveling at near-light speed toward a base the crew is supposed to attack. Not only do years pass outside between each turn the ship makes to avoid enemy missiles, but the missiles themselves improve with each shot. The enemy makes years of technological breakthroughs every few minutes the ship is en route. When the ship is finally hit, no one even knows what hit them because it’s so advanced. Haldeman injects poignant moments through science as well. Mandella forms relationships and love interests at first, but soon learns that if his friends and lovers are ever reassigned or stay behind on a planet, time dilation ensures that he will never see them again. This is hard science fiction at its best.

The best part of this book, though, is its commentary on war and society. It was written in the 70s when the Vietnam War was coming to an end. The war in The Forever War is even more pointless than Vietnam. Fighting a thousand-year war against an enemy you have never talked to, never even met except on the battlefield and with battles happening decades apart, is as close to stupidity as anything I can think of. This is the true power of good science fiction: it examines what is happening in our society today. Science fiction can accentuate any situation or philosophy in an otherwordly context, and expose the true ludicrousness or value of it. I see parallels in The Forever War to our current conflicts around the globe, and this book was written thirty years ago. It’s just as poignant now as it was then.

The only thing that detracts from the book is its cheesy ending. I may think it’s cheesy because it’s relatively happy, in contrast to the nearly hopeless tone of the bulk of the book. After several courses of rocks for dinner, a dessert of Vegemite is downright delectable. I’m sure if it was the ending of a more lighthearted book, it wouldn’t have bothered me as much. Even in this book, its effect on my opinion is hardly noticeable. And after taking a huge dose of reality delivered in a hard sci-fi package, giving the reader a ray of sunshine at the end does have its value.

The Forever War is not as well-known as other science fiction classics like Dune, 1984 or A Brave New World, but is just as poignant and meaningful. If you have even a passing interest in speculative fiction, The Forever War deserves a prominent place in your library.

William Reid is a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home father of three. When not writing, editing or reading sci fi and fantasy (or changing diapers and cleaning up after a toddler), he loves cooking and playing board games.

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Classic Fridays: American Gods on American Television, brought to you by a Brit

Editor’s Note: For the next several weeks we’re going to use Fridays to highlight a book that really, honestly, you should have read by now. The idea will be to find those books that may have just slipped under your radar, but which you really should read (yeah, I’m looking at you slacker, in the back of the class). Occasionally we’ll also highlight a book that someone has been crass enough to put back into the popular spotlight by making a film or a television series based on it. American Gods fits both of these criteria.

Sometimes you find one of those books that plows through your life as you know it. You read it deep into the night, think about it all day, and when you finish, you find that you look at the world a little differently. American Gods is just such a book. The novel is over a decade old, but is finally being made into a TV series by Starz. TV series based on books have gotten better in quality, but often stray to one degree or another from the original inspiration, enough to often make them a unique experience from their source. I would encourage you to pick up a copy of the novel and read it beforehand. The novel has a premise that only a master storyteller like Neil Gaiman (The Sandman graphic novels, Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book) could dream up.

The plot opens solidly in the real world: the main character, Shadow, has just finished a three-year prison term – for what, we don’t know – and has done his time in earnest, waiting to return to his loving wife and determined never to get into trouble again. But mere days before his release, he learns his wife has died in a car accident with her lover, and everything he’s lived for collapses. On the plane flight home, Shadow meets Wednesday, an enigmatic scoundrel who offers him a job. Shadow knows that Wednesday is a con artist, but he has nothing to lose and accepts the offer. Thus he, and we alongside him, begin our voyage into the world of American Gods. Wednesday, and most of the supporting cast in this book, are gods in the twilight of their existence. Wednesday, blind in one eye and taking his name after “his day,” is an incarnation of Odin. All Gods walk the earth, given power by the worship of humans. However, pantheons come and go as time moves on. This leaves the world populated with the remnants of Norse, Roman, Native American, Aboriginal and Egyptian pantheons trying to scrape by on what scraps of worship they can find. For instance, the Queen of Sheba works as a prostitute, making her clients worship her with quite – ahem – memorable results. Meanwhile, the new “American” gods – the gods of Computers, Highways and other modern amenities Americans worship these days – are young upstarts with more power than they can handle. The book chronicles the imminent clash between these old and new Gods on Earth.

 Reid's RoadWho, me? Yeah. You’re driving on a GOD here, pal.

Flat-out, this book is terrifying, fascinating, gothic and imaginative. Once you start reading, you won’t quit until you’re done. Gaiman’s world is complete and real and will keep you in it until he lets you go. And when he finally relinquishes his hold on you, you wish there was more. The only downside is that there are countless gods running around. You want to know who they are and what they represent, but it’s impossible to do. You just have to accept that there’s no way for you to understand everything, and enjoy what you do. At first, Shadow seems like a slow, muscle-bound ex-con with a brain not up to the task of dealing with the situation he’s in. For the first few chapters I worried about his value as the reader’s eyes and ears in the story. But it turns out that doesn’t give him nearly enough credit. Shadow is intelligent in a common-sense way, and is a fascinating character to follow. His personal dilemmas with his life, past crimes and love for his dead wife are poignant, and give him a great deal of dimension. (Hopefully this won’t give away too much, but his issues with his dead wife continue for the entire novel, literally from the grave, and is one of the more fascinating elements of the story.)

Most of all, this book wouldn’t be what it is without Gaiman’s skill at the craft. His writing is seamless, vivid and engaging, with plenty of action and great characters. In many ways his writing is invisible; his prose won’t amaze you like McCarthy or Chabon. Yet every word conjures the exact tone and pacing that Gaiman wants for the story. He keeps the final plot twists so close to his vest that you don’t see them coming, even though all the clues are out there for you to see. (This comes from someone who is notorious for guessing the ending of books halfway through.) Aspiring writers: If there is one author you want to emulate, Gaiman should be it.

William Reid Schmadeka is a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home father of three. When not writing, editing or reading sci-fi and fantasy (or changing diapers and cleaning up after a toddler), he loves cooking and playing board games.Sell your books to Powell's

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And you thought you missed Pac-Man, Madonna, and the Rubik’s Cube.

 

 

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Audiobook version

Ready Player One, rather than trying to be a timeless classic, pinpoints its theme to late twentieth century gaming culture. Its audiobook narrator, Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: TNG fame, is the embodiment of that theme. With full knowledge that this puts me right in the audiobook’s crosshairs, I will attempt a nerd-free (well, nerd-dialed-back-to-a-minimum) review of both the novel and the audio performance.

The story takes place in the 2040s. Natural resources are exhausted, infrastructure is crumbling, and humanity has retreated from real-life misery into a massive multiplayer game reality called the OASIS. When the game’s creator dies, he leaves his fortune, as well as control of the OASIS, to anyone who can solve a massive online quest. Since the quest is drawn from his devotion to early 80s video games and pop culture, society becomes obsessed with all things 80s. Players and corporations alike scramble to solve the quest, but it is so difficult that no progress is made by anyone for years. That is, until High School student Wade Watts, AKA Parzival, uncovers the first of the quest’s hidden Easter Eggs.

The Novel

Ready Player One has a lot going for it as a story. It is a unique and plausible look into a dystopian future in which world society lets reality fall apart in favor of a virtual existence. The pacing is good, keeping a quick forward momentum in the story, with only one misstep during the main character’s romantic pursuit of his rival Art3mis. The characterization is also excellent, and confronts the topic of online personas and appearances differing (often drastically) from those IRL. Its themes address personal identity and security, corporate control of wealth, resources, and the risks of eschewing reality in favor of a virtual, ephemeral utopia.

And, of course, there’s the fanboy appeal. Even if you’re not a fanboy, or from the 80s era, the story still has appeal (my wife and son still liked it). But the homage adds an extra dimension for those who appreciate it. The first Easter Egg is based on the classic Dungeons and Dragons module Tomb of Horrors, which any pen and paper geek like myself will goob over. Other references are rife throughout the novel, everything from War Games to Zork to Rush. And what geek could avoid a nerdgasm over a fight between Ultraman and Mechagodzilla? The correct answer is, no one. Though “your mom” is an acceptable answer as well.

However, for everything the story gets right, there are a few noticeable flaws. First, the book devotes long sections of narrative to infodumping, describing history, technology and backstory at length. Some is unavoidable in a science fiction story, but most could be conveyed to the reader through dialogue or context without telling us in long passages. Show the reader how the U.S. and its government have fallen apart rather than telling us the history. And some details the reader doesn’t need to know at all, like info on Wade’s suit that allows him to interact with the OASIS, or anecdotes on gaming history or characters. They are neat details, but slow the narrative down.

Also, once you get past the novelty of the world and the attraction of the theme, there are several major plot holes. First, Wade boasts of watching movies multiple times, completing countless games and consuming entire 80s TV series in his quest for the Easter Eggs. He is never presented as an unreliable narrator, but if we take his statements at face value, he would need most of his life to accomplish his claimed feats, assuming he never sleeps and does nothing but watch media and play games.

Second, the corporation IOI has an entire department dedicated to finding the Easter Eggs so they can control the OASIS. It is difficult to believe a multi-billion dollar corporation is unable to outpace individuals in the hunt, and must instead pursue them in their discoveries. IOI also has several in-game artifacts it uses to track the progress of their rivals, but does not utilize them until later in the story. There is no reason not to use these artifacts from the very beginning, other than to heighten tension for the reader and lengthen the hunt.

Third, the final Easter Egg can only be unlocked by three individuals combining their abilities. However, the importance of teamwork is absent in solving the subsequent challenge. This final challenge also separates the forces of good (Parzival) from evil (IOI). There is no direct head-to-head conflict, and we only know what the bad guys are doing indirectly, because Parzival doesn’t see it. This renders the climax of the story a bit of a letdown.

However, despite these drawbacks, the story remains a compelling action yarn, and its central themes relevant and impactful in an increasingly digital world.

The Audiobook

Anyone who knows Wil Wheaton beyond his role as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation should not be surprised he has the chops to narrate the audiobook of Ready Player One.

Like the story, Wheaton works on two levels. For the purposes of the audiobook, he serves as a talented voice actor. An important quality of any narrator is that their voices disappear into the text, meshing with the tone of the material and the characters within. There are few who rise to the level of Jim Dale, whose narration adds so much to the Harry Potter series that it’s preferable to listen to him rather than read the books themselves. Conversely, many fine actors such as Brad Pitt serve as poor book narrators, despite their talents. Their voices seldom fade into the narration or add to the auditory experience.

Wheaton never detracts from the material, and his voice serves perfectly as Parzival. He has a generous vocal range, adding unique sound and personality to other characters. His voice inflection is appropriate, consistent, and, most importantly, lets the material speak through his narration.

Then there’s the second level he works as narrator of this novel. Wheaton is utterly perfect to be the voice of Parzival. He is a video game and pop culture geek, and of the appropriate age to share many of the experiences hallowed by the novel’s material. I chuckled when he reached the point of the book where his older self is re-elected to the online leadership of the OASIS (referring to him as an “old geezer”), which reinforces his suitability as narrator.

Ready Player One, despite plot holes and infodumping issues, is an enjoyable read that keeps readers of any age engaged with its unique dystopian future. It is generally fast paced, and its thematic questions of online privacy and identity on the internet are relevant today. It has special appeal for those who remember the birth of videogames, the internet and modern geek culture. The audiobook version is also enjoyable, with the additional cache that Wil Wheaton’s narration brings to the material. Either sitting down to read the hardcopy (or ebook), or listening to the narration, is an entertaining experience that any science fiction fan will appreciate.

William Reid Schmadeka is a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home father of three. When not writing, editing or reading sci-fi and fantasy (or changing diapers and cleaning up after a toddler), he loves cooking and playing board games.

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Stephen King in Winter: restless nights, or Doctor Sleep?

Doctor Sleep

9781451698855

Stephen King frustrates me. His imagination is peerless, with the ability to consume readers with hope, horror or any emotion between. The characters he develops feel real and three-dimensional. His smooth prose doesn’t dazzle or impress, but takes your imagination right where he wants it to go.

But I have not been impressed with his work for a long time. I regard It, The Stand, Misery and the first four Dark Tower books with almost religious reverence. King fare, along with pulp sci fi and Star Trek novels, comprised most of my adolescent reading. But starting at about The Tommyknockers, King’s books became unengaging. Insipid. Sometimes (gasp!) boring. After too many mediocre to bad stories, I lost interest.

Even in his best books, the climaxes of his stories often disappointed me. Anyone who’s read his excellent book On Writing understands why: King doesn’t plot. He puts his amazing characters in incredible situations and lets things unfold with no clear end in sight. This is why few of his books have satisfying endings. The hand of God™ detonates the nuke. Pennywise the terrifying as all holy Hell clown turns out to be a spider alien. His works with planned trajectories (like The Green Mile) have endings so inevitable you see them coming for three hundred pages. His method to writing has produced thousands of pages of enjoyment that falter at the finish line.

One of his few works that ends with a climax worth the journey is The Shining. The news he wrote a sequel, Doctor Sleep, stirred both my King respect and disappointment. I loved the original. How could he equal it, let alone top it?

A Note on The Shining

Many people may not have read The Shining, but instead saw the movie by Stanley Kubrick. Doctor Sleep is a sequel to the book, not the movie, and there are a few notable differences between the two.

First, the novel’s Overlook Hotel (which is very much sentient and evil) wishes to capture Danny’s “shining” ability to add to its power. In the movie, the hotel’s motivation is less clear, but it seems to want Danny’s father Jack, who is the reincarnation of a previous caretaker.

Jack kills Dick Hallorann in the movie, but not in the book. Hallorann in Doctor Sleep is a prominent mentor for young Danny after the events at the Overlook. There is also no hedge maze in the book, and the Overlook’s boiler room explodes at the climax, destroying the hotel. The hotel remains intact at the end of the movie.

The biggest difference is the portrayal of Jack. Movie Jack, played by the amazing Jack Nickolson, starts out irritable and displeased with his family. In the book, he is a well-intentioned man who is overcome by the evil of the Overlook. At the climax of the book, Jack has a moment of sanity and saves his wife and son from the explosion that destroys the hotel. In the movie, Jack has no such redemption and freezes to death in the hedge maze after chasing his son with an axe.

Doctor Sleep

The novel starts four decades later, with Dan Torrance following his father’s path into alcoholism. Unlike his father, whose solution had been bare-knuckle sobriety, Dan joins Alcoholics Anonymous. He becomes a hospice worker, using his shining to comfort the dying. For his gift he becomes known as “Doctor Sleep.”

A young, powerful psychic named Abra contacts Dan telepathically, and over time the two form a bond. Her potent shining also attracts the attention of the True Knot, a group of psychic vampires who travel the country in Winnebagos. They have lived for centuries consuming steam (their word for the shining), much like the Overlook wished to consume young Danny’s power. They target Abra for capture so they can sustain their existence with her massive steam. The book follows Dan and Abra as they protect her from kidnapping and death at the hands of the True.

The Verdict

Doctor Sleep meshes well with the original novel and flows at a fast pace. Things are always happening, and the story never loses forward momentum. Its theme stays true to the original. It is difficult for any sequel to rise to the level of its predecessor, but Doctor Sleep makes an admirable attempt.

The novel has some great moments of horror, foremost of which is when Dan hits rock bottom. He wakes up hung over next to a stranger and finds she left her toddler home alone the night before. The child reaches for the cocaine remnants from their bender, calling it “candy.” Dan sweeps the cocaine away and flees the apartment, but the lingering horror of the situation propels him to join AA. His shining, still present but diminished with age, confirms later that both the woman and her son are dead. This knowledge haunts him for the entire book.

Dan is everything I expect from a great King character, with a robust backstory and personality. He is the strongest part of the book by far. When his AA members discover his work at hospice, they call him “Doc,” a nice callback to The Shining. The young girl Abra, a more powerful psychic than Dan ever was, is also well developed. Her pre-teen attitude and intrepidness makes her both endearing and unpredictable.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good characterization ends. The supporting cast are two dimensional and stereotypical, at points almost caricatures. The True Knot’s dialogue is stilted and hackneyed. Rose the Hat, the leader of the True Knot, has her potential as a memorable villain lost in predictability and flatness. I wish she had received the same character attention the two protagonists did.

I never felt that Dan or Abra were in any real danger, either. They were often more prepared than their foes, taking advantage of the True’s overconfidence and underestimation. This took away much of the tension the book could have had if the protagonists were underdogs for more of the story.

King doesn’t seem to follow his own writing rules. I wanted to scream every time I stumbled over an adverb or lack of active voice. Part of me wants to believe he wrote Doctor Sleep to match his writing style of four decades ago, but that style is a definite step backward.

But in the end I did enjoy this book, mainly because of Dan. His story is dark and tragic and shows life doesn’t fade to black at the end of a book. He overcomes the horrors of the Overlook, his addictions and his own darkness to emerge stronger on the other side. Despite the speed bumps along the way, my ride with Dan was an enjoyable one.

Doctor Sleep may not be as gripping or consuming as The Shining, but stands as one of the better examples of recent King fare. And maybe, just maybe, campgrounds, rest stops, and the elderly in Winnebagos will give me the same unease I feel whenever I see a motherfucking clown.

William Reid Schmadeka is a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home father of three. When not writing, editing or reading sci-fi and fantasy (or changing diapers and cleaning up after a toddler), he loves cooking and playing board games.

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