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Heads down, there's going to be incoming... [May. 27th, 2005|12:23 pm]
[music |Tantos Desejos: Suba (Nicola Conte remix)]

This is going to be long, so bear with me, o best beloved.

So, who is Ian McDonald and why is he saying such terrible things about ‘mundane sf’? (Such a bloodless title for something that purports to be about producing ‘better science fiction’. At least cyberpunk sounded funky, and the New Weird automatically begs the question, what was wrong with the Old Weird? Does weird have a half-life?)

I presume this suggestion that perhaps I don’t sufficiently understand the dogme stems from my talk at the BSFA AGM. Now, as then, all I can do is base my comments on the Mundane Manifesto. Now, this may be misguided of me, perhaps MSF (not Medecins Sans Frontieres) is based as much upon the Ulama as the Koran.

Now, first up: I have no intention whatsoever of slagging offJeff Ryman, one of our most inspiring, thoughtful and graceful writers. If he wants to start a movement that shifts copy, fair play to him. Dammit, I wish I’d thought of it first (is it too late to start a high-profile parallel movement called something like ‘World-Sf’ that will sell by the store-front?)

Certainly, most movements in SF are born out of reaction, and I welcome the this-worldly focus of the MSF manifesto as the antidote to big-fuck-off-spaceships-with-lots-of-windows SF and (much worse) military/imperial sf with its creative taproot deep in Gene Roddenberry. As Wide-screen space opera (to use Gardner Dozois’ phrase, which is clunky but no one’s come up with a pithier one) was a reaction to end-phase wannabe cyberpunk.

Here’s the dogme:

That interstellar travel remains unlikely. Warp drives, worm holes, and other forms of faster-than-light magic are wish fulfillment fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future.
(No argument from me on that one)

That magic interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with worlds as hospitable to life as this Earth. This is also unlikely.
(Doesn’t logically follow: cart before horse argument.)

That this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth.
(Couldn’t agree more. Use up this planet, throw it out and move on to another.)

That there is no evidence whatsoever of intelligences elsewhere in the universe. That absence of evidence is not evidence of absence -- however, it is unlikely that alien intelligences will overcome the physical constraints on interstellar travel any better than we can.
(Why is this ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ than not applied to the quantum effect point below?)

That interstellar trade (and colonization, war, federations, etc.) is therefore highly unlikely.
(Quite agree. Whatever kind of humanity make sit into interstellar space is not going to be like us. It’s needs and ecological niche will be very different –so, alas, no Polesotechnic League, no Firefly, (I’ve always had an intellectual beef with Interstaller Traders –what commodity could be so valuable as to justify the cost of shipping it across parsecs? Norman Spinrad, of course, had it right –drugs) no Imperial Star Destroyers. (dammit)

That communication with alien intelligences over such vast distances will be vexed by: the enormous time lag in exchange of messages and the likelihood of enormous and probably currently unimaginable differences between us and aliens.
(So, mathematics is not a universal language? )

That there is no evidence whatsoever that quantum uncertainty has any effect at the macro level and that therefore it is highly unlikely that there are whole alternative universes to be visited.
(See above. Depends on your interpretation of quantum theory (see David Deutsch The Fabric of Reality for a robust statement of the many worlds interpretation) –any one of the major three approaches means the universe (or multiverse) is stranger than we can imagine. And unlikelihood is the very essence of quantum theory. Further, I await the outcome of experiments to superpose viruses. )

That therefore our most likely future is on this planet and within this solar system. It is highly unlikely that intelligent life survives elsewhere in this solar system. Any contact with aliens is likely to be tenuous, and unprofitable.
(Fully agreed)

That the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.
(Depends how far forward you look. And this, along with the first statement, is an a priori of sf as essentially a realist genre concerned primarily with the short-term future that can be extrapolated from current trends. The near future is increasingly the area in which I find myself writing It’s the differences, that interest me, the unlikelihoods, that make it interesting. If we confine ourselves only to the most likely near-future, does MSF run the risk of becoming almost a shared-world anthology, a future history?

A little thought experiment: if this manifesto had existed in the 1950s,how closely would its SF resemble the world as it exists today (if it had existed at all, remembering that the Post-nuclear holocaust story was a major sub-genre –though not one for which I had much time)

Then there’s the question of cut-off –at what point does the likely future become so clouded that the manifesto fails? Twenty years, fifty years, hundred years? Ten years, five years?

Certainly, MSF’s firm focus on evolving technology and geopolitics as they are happening now is to be cheered and ticker-taped, and the whole idea of what this means to a life, to a person, to people.

All this is here:
*'A new focus on human beings: their science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individual characters, needs, dreams, hopes and failings.
The awakening bedazzlement and wonder that awaits us as we contemplate the beauties of this Earth and its people and what will happen to them in time.
The relief of focusing on what science tells us is likely rather than what is almost impossible such as warp drives. The relief will come from a sense of being honest.
An awakening sense of the awesome power of human beings: to protect or even increase their local patrimony ... or destroy it. '
(Amen to that. )

So what’s my complaint?
The number of great writers or movies which independently work within these guidelines, indicating that the Mundane Manifesto produces better science fiction.

Now, of course this is grit in the oyster and it’s always good to stimulate debate , but I can argue against it from the inside.

Because I may have accidentally committed MSF.

I have a book out at the moment River of Gods, from Simon and Schuster/Pocket (funky mass-market cover, looks like an Indian Underwear ad). It’s set in near-future India (2047, hundredth anniversary of independence), it’s been kindly received by all you good good people and got some award nominations, including, gob-smackingly, a Hugo nomination. Most readers would agree that it ticks the boxes of Mundane SF. Even more so my recent Asimov’s spin-off story The Little Goddess.

But I wrote all this without knowing of the Mundane Manifesto, let alone that such a movement existed, and certainly without having read a single word of the dogme. If I had, it would have been much worse a book for it. For at one level you can call such a dogme creative constraint. At another it’s box ticking. Ignorance, in my case, was bliss. And I wish I was ignorant again, because I don’t want those boxes there, to either have to tick or ignore. The real creative freedom is the constraint of writing the book you want to write, nothing more. And that can be very very hard in as small and communicative a world as SF

Will I then be co-opted against my will, like being converted to Mormonism after your death? (How unfair is that? Now you really can’t win).

It’s not just the Mundane Manifesto is totally unnecessary to produce the type of science-fiction it celebrates (one very very much worth celebrating, and that is due it’s time in the sun) , it’s that the genre has a much richer palate of colours. It’s a poor manifesto that would venerate Verne (tech-speculation) but consigns much of H.G. Wells’ core texts to the ‘bonfire of stupidities’ (interplanetary war, aliens, time-travel…). To me, one of the strengths of SF is that it is an allegorical literature: parables and myths of our age. That TV has appropriated and devalued many of them is tribute to their strength, not their weakness. To me, any literature that writes about the future (not all SF does by any means) cannot be realist…, to quote likelihood of a possible future is just hand waving.

I tend not to write about big space-ships, interstellar travel (in my work, it tends to be uncomfortable and very very slow) or aliens. In this way, my work may seem to fit the Mundane Manifesto. But when I need to, I will use those colours to make the allegorical point I want. In Sacrifice of Fools I used the alien Shian in a pastiche of the movie Alien Nation (great premise, shit movie –just another stupid drugs film, eventually) because they were the most effective tool to satirise my own country of Northern Ireland. Had I applied the dogme of MSF, I fear it would have become a dull, tendentious, grim and worthy chunk of urban grime. (of course, you may very well think this about SoF anyway)

Finally, we all know that we rarely invent anything new, but when we do, it should be celebrated. It seems to me that MSF isn’t doing anything that John Brunner didn’t do thirty years ago in Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, The Jagged Orbit and the Shockwave Rider. Cyberpunk gave us a new vocabulary and interior décor –if in the end it subsided into self-parody, such is the way of movements. MSF inherently seems reactionary (reactionary against a reactionary sub-genre, Wide Screen Space Opera) but also that it isn’t telling us anything we didn’t know already.

SF is a rich repository of mythic types, including its ‘stupidities’. SF is developing into a global literature –I’m excited by new Indian and Chinese writers and the collision between our existing tropes –all of them—and these rapidly developing societies promises a richer (better) SF than one tied to the dogme of MSF.

Basically, my experience has been that the Mundane Manifesto is totally unnecessary to produce better science fiction. World-SF, anyone?

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[User Picture]From: benpeek
2005-05-27 12:03 pm (UTC)
personally, i've never been convinced that any manifesto that is strictly adhered to produces excellent work. mostly, in the cases of cyberpunk and the new weird, they become selling words for advertising and books get slotted into them as they come out. (though i have a bit of trouble trying to figure out who would say that they wanted to buy mundane sf--mundane suggests a certain level of every day nothingness to me. 'today i woke up on the spaceship. nothing to do again. bought milk two floors down. say kyle. asked if he watched LOST last week. he said no, it was shit. i agreed.')

and hi.

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[User Picture]From: ianmcdonald
2005-05-27 12:18 pm (UTC)
agree with you, as a marketing tool, it's unlikely to shift bucketloads of stock --as I commented to my old mate David Rhodes, when I was visiting him asfter the BSfa bash: 'I was talking about Mundane Sf: his reply, 'how does that work? No alien invasion again today?'
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[User Picture]From: remotepush
2005-05-27 01:05 pm (UTC)
got any names for these exciting indian and chinese writers?
any links to handy online extracts?

and, good to see you with a webpresence!
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[User Picture]From: daveon
2005-05-27 01:19 pm (UTC)
I always thought the manifesto sounded a little whiny when I read it for the first time a year or so ago. SF also, sometimes, needs to be fun - Peter Hamilton writes fun, large scale space opera and the genre needs it from time to time. We've got all the nanotechnology and Singularity fiction coming along at the moment which is fitting in quite well with the manifesto but I am quite interested to see what happens next.

I expect there'll be another crop of 21st/22nd libertarian space colonisation stuff coming along in the wake of the success of Space Ship 1 and, in its own way, while it won't break the manifesto it will be just as implausible as FTL etc..

BTW - I finished River of Gods the night before last. Thanks. That was a good read.
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From: joatsimeon
2005-06-01 01:32 am (UTC)

Libertarian Space Opera and Its Discontents

IMHO, libertarianism in our time fills many of the same psycho-ideological needs that Marxism did when Issac Asimov was young.

It's the perfect dumb ideology for smart, alienated young nerds. "But I, aha, _I_ understand what's really going on!" That's why you meet so many libertarians at SF conventions, though the trend may have peaked.

It's filling the niche vacated when people actually tried to implement Marxism and the results became widely known. Nobody's tried the Liberarian Republic yet, though the results would, I fearlessly predict, be just as God-awful if sincerely tried.

Libertarianism (and in its day, Marxism) differ from conspiracy theories and the tinfoil-beanie crowd (tho' there's some overlap and the basic mechanism is similar) in that you don't have to be clinically insane or stupid to believe in it, since in both cases (Marx and Rand) there's a certain superficial plausibility.

And it gives the recipient a unified cognitive field that explains everything.
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[User Picture]From: autopope
2005-05-27 02:12 pm (UTC)
Couldn't agree more about MSF.

On the one hand, I sympathize with Jeff's distaste for a lot of the big-spaceships-with-windows stuff. (I've got a neat sideline writing space opera but very few people seem to have noticed yet that it's, ahem, internally inconsistent and self-satirizing -- but that's another matter.) On the other hand, declaring that certain technologies are almost certainly not going to happen therefore we shouldn't consider the consequences of them is almost certainly about as wrong-headed as you can get, because ...

What I read the MSF manifesto as is a rejection of sense of wonder SF.

Let's not forget that those big space operas of the 1920's and 1930's were more about getting the readers to drop the book and say "wow!" than they were attempts at extrapolation. I figure the rigorous extrapolation fetishism of hard SF was mostly invented out of whole cloth in the 1960's and 1970's -- there was a thread of it running through Amazing SF from Gernsback on, but it didn't become the defining characteristic of the genre until later, and even Gernsback had to rely on adventure fiction to keep the readers coming back for more.

What I see in MSF is a rejection of the outward-looking search for a sense of wonder that characterises the hard SF boom of the 1970's and its bastard children, the cyberpunks. (Who, when not being dystopian, were still basically writing about a hi-tech future with a whole bunch of ghost-in-the-machine implausibilities, at least from the point of view of the time -- how many of us really took William Gibson's cyberspace seriously back in 1984?)

Now, I figure that it is quite possible to come up with a posthuman post-nanotech future in which FTL travel and communications is impossible, and nobody gets beyond our solar system -- but in which the solar system itself has become so vast that it supports a cognitive ecology equivalent to planting our current-day Earth in orbit around every star in the galaxy. It's quite possible to come up with a no-FTL future in which the human or post-human experience of deep time comes front-and-centre. And it's quite possible to come up with a far future in which we meet aliens we can just about communicate and trade with because they're our own descendants, tweaked to survive in alien biospheres. (Alien biospheres themselves ain't a long stretch, now that we've had our expectations of extrasolar planetary abundance so thoroughly overturned in the past decade. Planets are common as muck, and planets in the water belt around their primaries are probably not much less common.)

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the MSF rejection of this stuff is uneccessary, even within the neo-realist terms they want to impose on the internal debate. All it does is straitjacket us, and I don't think that's healthy in the long run.
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[User Picture]From: autopope
2005-05-27 02:15 pm (UTC)
Let me add: what I think we can usefully rail against in SF today is the cult of the heroic archetype. Bloody George Lucas has a lot to answer for in his misappropriation of tropes from mythology ... stripped of their context, your average hero is a bloodthirsty sociopath, your average adventure is a horrible experience that you really want to avoid if at all possible, and (as James Nicoll remarks) your average SF writer's future scenarios demonstrate about the same degree of compassion for their fellow humans as your average Dalek.

I'm all for humanizing SF. But that's not the same thing as ignoring the horizons.
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[User Picture]From: perlmonger
2005-05-27 02:15 pm (UTC)
What you said.

It's another ideological box: I've yet to see a manifesto that didn't act to exclude more that is valuable than it includes (or fail to unnaturally constrain what it does allow).

In any case, even space opera can act as a powerful mirror to our society, our humanity...
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[User Picture]From: daveon
2005-06-01 02:23 pm (UTC)
Yes but it can also go wrong. The Sparrow, a book I must admit to hating with a real passion, masquerades as SF, with aliens and space ships and lots of other stuff. However, I found the end result would have been better set, say, in 15th century Japan.

If it had dropped the attempts at "science" and actually been
set 300 years further out and was space opera it might have been a better first contact novel.
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[User Picture]From: autopope
2005-05-27 03:03 pm (UTC)


More detailed response to this blog entry here.
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[User Picture]From: applez
2005-05-27 05:53 pm (UTC)

Re: Incoming!

Interesting bit about the cult of heroism. To be fair, Alfred Bester's Tiger, Tiger/Stars My Destination at least described that sociopathy well. I'll throw in All My Sins Remembered in case I'm getting the two novels confused. :-)
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[User Picture]From: applez
2005-05-27 05:18 pm (UTC)

Several comments

Basically, my experience has been that the Mundane Manifesto is totally unnecessary to produce better science fiction. World-SF, anyone?

I broadly agree that writing to type or box is a formula for failure...even if one is commerically successful (e.g. Harry Turtledove, Margaret Weiss) and popular, it is not going to produce anything long-lasting (e.g. 2001, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), imho. I experienced this kind of epiphany when another 'DVD Box Set Sale!' for old Southpark seasons flashed on the TV - Southpark excels at being current, which gives it a high rate of obsolescence, I find. It would be sad to see all SF literature end up in a similar scope of flashpan lifespan.

Then there’s the question of cut-off –at what point does the likely future become so clouded that the manifesto fails? Twenty years, fifty years, hundred years? Ten years, five years?

Good question. I find that Baxter's Evolution posits an interesting biospheric worldview that keeps strictly to the scope of our world (no post-disaster alien archeologists a la 'A.I.'), but scales all the way to the very end of life on Earth. Ambitious, and really quite good. :-) I guess it is mostly up to the author's intentions of how they intend to scope their tale. While Ken Macleod's Star Fraction 'series' eventually leaves the Earth, the overall structure allows for a perspective of technological and social progression over a long span of time, but retaining the tight focus of a smaller moment in time, with the wealth of characterization that involves.

if it had existed at all, remembering that the Post-nuclear holocaust story was a major sub-genre –though not one for which I had much time) - well, if he didn't kill it, Heinlein certainly guaranteed its mortal maiming with a future projection of African cannibals. ;-)

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[User Picture]From: adrian_turtle
2005-05-27 05:53 pm (UTC)
Can you (or somebody) explain the purpose of this manifesto? I never know what the people who write this sort of thing have in mind. Maybe I just don't have the right calibration standards for my parody-detector. Is it supposed to be a prescriptive guideline for writers? (I understand that some people are trying to write something derivative, but none of the situations I know of have to do with anything like a manifesto...they're cases where a writer is just so saturated in the work of a much-admired predecessor it's hard to think beyond it.) Or is it trying to define the boundaries of a category, for the reviewers and librarians and others trying to sort already-written books? How does it connect to "if you liked X, here's a list of other books you might like, and their characteristics?" What's the difference between such a list and a manifesto?
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[User Picture]From: ianmcdonald
2005-05-27 06:29 pm (UTC)
Hey man, don't ask me, I'm too busy trying to be every-day extraordinary, not mundane... And, hey, Mr Cobley, I presume that's you, mucker?
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From: blzblack
2005-05-27 07:22 pm (UTC)
Thank you for taking the time to voice for your thoughts. I love listening other POVs. You opinion is well-reasoned and, thankfully, lacks ad hominems pervasive in the field (if you can't reason, ridicule the dissenter's grandmom).

Don't worry about any backlash. I suspect I'll be the only member who speaks up although I have pointed out your response to the group. This weekend, I'll post a response on our blog (not my personal one, which is usually boring day-to-day):


When I manage, would you mind posting a link so we can support our case? (Mostly it will have to do with our playful yet serious tone that so many readers fail to pick up on, for whatever reason--as well as assumptions about what manifestos do that ours does not.)

Take care and thanks again.
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[User Picture]From: ianmcdonald
2005-05-27 09:09 pm (UTC)
glad to see your response ... the mundane blog seems to have been a bit muted of late. Yer right that far too much of sf debate descends into name calling (the first refuge of the conservative) and that is not what I'm about. When I find out how to post a link (bit of a novice at this, I certainly will.

pip pip
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[User Picture]From: andrewducker
2005-05-27 07:30 pm (UTC)

Pedantic Mode On

Joss has previously stated that Firefly is all set in _one_ system, and all flight is lower than light.

It is, however, a large system.
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[User Picture]From: andrewducker
2005-05-27 07:30 pm (UTC)

Re: Pedantic Mode On

Oh - and I loved Necroville. One of my favourite novels.
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[User Picture]From: ninebelow
2005-05-27 07:37 pm (UTC)

Mundane SF

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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2005-05-28 12:18 pm (UTC)
Further comment and discussion: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Making Light, and Lou Anders on his blog (good post, that one).
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[User Picture]From: joyeuse13
2005-05-28 04:12 pm (UTC)
Journal entry on this topic here. Thanks for posting!
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-05-28 10:02 pm (UTC)

Not to worry?

To quote Larry Marder,
But if I knew anything from the history of art, it's that when artists start writing manifestos, that means the movement is as dead as a doornail. The Surrealists' Manifesto got written after Surrealism... It's codifying, it's ossifying something.

--The Comics Journal #201, January 1998, p.71

Perhaps Mundane SF should best be considered a set of restrictions that authors can use as a way to challenge themselves, akin to how poets find that creative inspiration can flow from working in a strict metrical form.
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From: joatsimeon
2005-06-03 05:26 pm (UTC)

Re: Not to worry?

"Perhaps Mundane SF should best be considered a set of restrictions that authors can use as a way to challenge themselves, akin to how poets find that creative inspiration can flow from working in a strict metrical form."

-- no, it's an attempt to control and limit _content_, not style or form. Different thing entirely -- apples and oranges.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-05-29 07:55 pm (UTC)

Dogma Are Made To Be Broken...

Anyone remember the "Dogma" movement, started by Danish film directors (such as Lars Von Trier)? It did produce some interesting films, but the movement didn't last.

You can only wring so much out of a "movement". And something as feeble as "Mundane SF" can't last very long.

Mostly because in the real world, the limits of what's "scientifically possible" keep moving... thus making the boundaries set by the Manifesto completely arbitrary.

Case in point: until very recently, the "accepted" cosmological model was the expansion of the Universe had to slow down. Then it was discovered NOT to be slowing down, but accelerating.

If the Manifesto had been published ten years ago, it's likely it would have placed "human cloning" in the "impossible" category -- as in "Ain't Gonna Happen In The Foreseeable Future".

I vaguely recall that as a kid I read in old GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION copies, how experts in the 1950s did not expect the secrets of DNA to be discovered/mastered in the "foreseeable future".

What the Mundane SF Manifesto is REALLY doing, is this: trying to predict the future. ("The future, Conan?")
Here's my prediction: Within 10 years, at least two of the scientific limitations set in the manifesto are going to be obsolete.

Should SF address serious problems of the present -- such as environmental issues? Of course it should. But you don't need a manifesto to accomplish that. If people want to write about climate change, they are going to write about climate change.

http://yngve.bravehost.com (http://yngve.bravehost.com)
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[User Picture]From: ninebelow
2005-05-29 08:18 pm (UTC)

Re: Dogma Are Made To Be Broken...

Anyone remember the "Dogma" movement, started by Danish film directors (such as Lars Von Trier)? It did produce some interesting films, but the movement didn't last.

Yeah, here are the vows of chastity. It's notable how quickly von Trier moved away from the idea when he was unable to make the films he wished within its constraints. Cinema would be a lot poorer if films could only be like The Idiots and not like Dogville. Likewise SF and the Mundane.

Some stuff about artistic constraint here.
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