REVIEW: The Year’s Best Science Fiction # 23 edited by Gardner Dozois
REVIEW SUMMARY: 5 standouts + 17 good stories – 8 less-than-stellar = a very good anthology.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of 30 sf stories from the year 2005
PROS: 22 stories good or better, 5 of them outstanding.
CONS: 8 stories mediocre or worse.
BOTTOM LINE: Another good collection of stories on par with the past few volumes.
Continuing the much-loved, annual tradition of picking the top short sf stories of the year, author/editor Gardner Dozois’ presents the twenty-third volume of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, an anthology containing 30 stories from 2005 and spanning 800 pages. The anthology has much of what we come to expect from the series – a representative sample of science fiction that showcases the breadth of the genre. There is also the voluminous summation of the science fiction year. As comprehensive as the series’ summations are, I can’t help but think that they get even better as time goes on. Looking back at early editions in the series (yes, I have most of them and no, I have not read most of them) proves that the summations increase in nostalgic value with each passing year.
Overall, this anthology is on par with the other volumes I’ve read, which sits at a very comfortable “very good”. (See the reviews for #19, #20, #21 and #22.) By my tally, 22 of the 30 stories were good or better with 5 of those rising to the outstanding level. That means that eight of the stories were mediocre or worse. This can be expected as the tastes of editor and reader are sure to differ. It should be noted that there are two stories this year by Alastair Reynolds, whose fiction tends to agree with me. Perhaps, then, it’s no wonder that’s why he snagged two of the top five ratings.
The five standout stories were “Beyond The Aquila Rift” and “Zima Blue” by Alastair Reynolds, “Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory, “The Canadian Who Came Almost All The Way Home From The Stars ” by Jay Lake And Ruth Nestvold and “Burn” by James Patrick Kelly.
As noted below, twelve of the stories contained in this volume have been previously reviewed by me. Also, stories available online are linked.
STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:
- “The Little Goddess“ by Ian McDonald [2005 novella] (Reviewed in June 2006, here’s what I said then)
- Synopsis: In future India, a young girl becomes a goddess, falls from god-status and becomes a courier of illegal AIs.
- Review: Set in the same culturally rich future as his novel, River of Gods, McDonald paints a touching and thoughtful picture of innocence lost, shifting social status and redemption. The Kumari Devi is just an innocent child when she is chosen to become the goddess; eligible because she is one of few who bears “the thirty-two signs of perfection”, chosen because she alone passes a series of traumatic tests. As she learns to follow the strict and required ways of a Devi, she is guided by two surrogate mothers who she calls Tall Kumarima and Smiling Kumarima. Out of love, Tall Kumarima secretly gives the goddess a forbidden portable AI palm device. The discovery of the device leads to the Devi’s fall. She eventually meets Ashok, a dataraja – an illegal AI dealer. (AI tech is legally forbidden above certain levels of intelligence.) Ashok hires her as a courier using her assumed status as potential bride. The ex-Devi is implanted with an unprecedented five AIs for one final run, but the Krishna cops close in and she must act fast. What was interesting about this story is the same thing that was interesting about River of Gods. The story is steeped in culture that provides a wonderful atmosphere and vivid imagery. At the same time, you feel for the ex-Devi who, as much as we all are to some degree, is a victim of things beyond her control. Good stuff.
- Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novella.
- “The Calorie Man“ by Paolo Bacigalupi [2005 novelette] (Reviewed in June 2006, here’s what I said then.)
- Synopsis: Thanks to some unfortunate side effects of genetic engineering (like an out-of-control weevil that consumed the planet’s crops) the world population – what’s left of it – is starving. But genetic engineering has provided a solution, of sorts, by way of SoyPRO and HiGro, man-made food substitutes. The food is used, in turn, to feed the animals (also gene-engineered) to convert it to much-needed energy. This story, set in and around the Mississippi river and New Orleans, follows an Indian named Lalji who travels the river posing as an antique dealer, but who is secretly a calorie bandit, much to the consternation of the IP (intellectual property) police of the monopolistic food companies. Lalji and his partner Creo are tasked with transporting “The Calorie Man”, one of the last of the geneticists, so he can bring about the demise of the food monopolies.
- Review: An interesting story for its setting and situation. The world portrayed seems to suffering from a mild case of post-apocalypse; hunger and energy are seriously constrained, population is decreasing as people die off – yet there is enough civilization to maintain a corporation? There is also no real sense that technology is of any use anymore to anyone but the food company, unless you count the kink-springs used to power the boats that travel the river. This made for a slightly unbalanced portrayal of an otherwise dark future, but that could be the result of the story focusing on Lalji alone, a choice which did lend much to this story’s wonderful mood.
- Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novelette.
- “Beyond The Aquila Rift” by Alastair Reynolds [2005 novelette] (Reviewed in July 2006, here’s what I said then.)
- Synopsis: A merchant ship that uses alien technology to travel around the galaxy suffers from a routing error that transports it far, far away from home.
- Review: Another winning story from Reynolds. The story’s title is somewhat of a spoiler, but that in no way diminishes the enjoyment of this well-laid-out story. When Thom, the captain of the ship Blue Goose, wakes from hypnosleep before his other two crew mates, Suzy and Ray, he meets a familiar face from his past. As the story unfolds, Thom learns that all is not necessarily as it appears. Familiar plot aside, the marvel of this story is how it’s told. Piece by piece the reader learns the startling truth of what is really going on. There’s a definite dramatic tension in Thom’s repeated attempts to wake Suzy and break the news, only to immediately fail and have to retry. Excellent work.
- “Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory [2005 novelette](Reviewed in July 2006, here’s what I said then.)
- Synopsis: After a young girl loses her sense of self from a designer drug overdose, she must deal with her parents’ attempts to reacquaint her with her previous life.
- Review: Well done! The designer drug, called Zombie or Zen, increases the time between action and thought, with thought coming much later, similar to conscious blackouts. An overdose essentially purges the victim’s identity. They have memory of their previous lives, but they don’t have the feeling of experience. Therese, who now wants to be called Terry, struggles with the person she is being made to become. The situation offers some thought-provoking moments about identity and human rights. Terry is a sympathetic character, as are her struggling parents. Amidst all this contemplation, the story also holds a surprise or two.
- “The Canadian Who Came Almost All The Way Home From The Stars “ by Jay Lake And Ruth Nestvold [2005 novelette]
- Synopsis: An U.S. NSA agent babysits (and falls for) a Canadian scientist whose husband has left Earth after discovering the secret of superluminal space travel. She expects her husband to return and waits patiently by the lake where there is an unnatural depression in the water.
- Review: This is a nicely crafted and engaging story that felt like it was deftly reinventing itself when you figured out where it was headed. At first it seemed like a poignant love triangle story between the missing scientist, his dedicated wife and the outsider who falls for her. Then we learn of ulterior motives, hidden secrets and, ultimately, the cold, hard truth of science. Nicely done!
- “Triceratops Summer” by Michael Swanwick [2005 short story]
- Synopsis: An accident at a nearby physics labs causes a herd of dinosaurs to wander modern neighborhoods. I hate when that happens.
- Review: The dinosaurs a really just a backdrop for showing that it’s the important things in life that matter. As such, there are some off-putting things in the story for any realism perfectionists; things like how people take the appearance of the dinosaurs in stride. Otherwise, a very effective piece.
- “Camouflage” [Great Ship/Marrow] by Robert Reed [2005 novella] (Reviewed in May 2006, here’s what I said then.)
- Synopsis: Aboard the Great Ship of Reed’s novel Marrow, the alien husbands of a human named Sorrel are being killed. First Captain Miocene hires a drifter named Pamir – the umpteenth identity of a former captain that has been hiding for centuries – to find the killer.
- Review: I really like the idea of the Great Ship, a place so huge, an entire world can fit inside it. It’s a place rich with alien culture and atmosphere. Although I liked this backdrop, the story of a series of murders didn’t connect with me. One common trait of all the victims, besides that they were all married to Sorrel, is that they all share the same belief in the Faith of the Many Joinings, a belief system where beings bond emotionally on a spiritual level. An interesting idea, but essentially a red herring. The characters were fairly flat. Pamir comes across like a reluctant detective even though he manages to somehow find another clue that leads him to the next adventure. Sorrel seems like an uncaring witch, maybe to make her seem like a suspect? If I remember this story, it’ll be for the cool setting.
- “A Case of Consilience” by Ken Macleod [2005 short story] (Reviewed in July 2006, here’s what I said then.)
- Synopsis: A Scottish Presbyterian named Donald McIntyre tries to bring the word of God to an alien fungus.
- Review: A bit preachy (as could be expected) and borderline uninteresting until McIntyre slips and falls in the quicksand that is home to alien.
- Note: The title and plot are nods to James Blish’s Hugo-winning novel A Case on Conscience.
- “The Blemmye’s Strategem” by Bruce Sterling [2005 novelette]
- Synopsis: Historical fantasy story set during the Crusades centering on an abbess named Hildegart, an alchemist named Sinan and the Blemmye – a headless creature whose face is in his chest.
- Review: It’s hard to get into a historical fantasy story when you lack a fondness for both history and fantasy; thus this story was of limited appeal to me. However, I do note that the narrative of the story nicely captures the period in which it is set.
- “Amba” by William Sanders [2005 novelette]
- Synopsis: A little global warming wreaks economic havoc and makes Russia one of the richest and most sought-after countries. Two hunters-for-hire undertake a job transporting five men across the Chinese border but uncover some unsettling truths.
- Review: There’s not a whole lot of science fiction in this story other than the backdrop of global warming, but that gives motivation for the nefarious deeds done by some. Even so, this was an enjoyably disquieting read. Given the bleak outlook for the world’s environment painted by the scientists, Sanders creates a beautifully dark mood.
- “Search Engine” by Mary Rosenblum [2005 short story]
- Synopsis: A search specialist named Aman hunts for a young man who is wanted by the government and undergoes a conversion of sorts thanks to his new young partner, Jimi, who happens to remind Aman of his son, Avi.
- Review: A realistic and scary future is portrayed where people are implanted with tracking chips and a person’s life is easily tracked. The uses of this futuristic tracking technology was way cool (grocery stores reminding you of what you needed to buy, for example) and the implications of it were sobering. Some great issues of personal privacy are raised here and the cop story is pretty darned good, too.
- “Piccadilly Circus” by Chris Beckett [2005 novelette]
- Synopsis: Most of humanity has relocated (uploaded) to the Consensus, a virtual reality that overlays the true reality and is run by the Hub intelligence, while a few Outsiders remain disconnected. This story focuses on Clarissa, an elderly woman who longs for the days of her youth and the dazzling lights of London’s Piccadilly Circus.
- Review: Beckett has used some intriguing world-building on which to tell Clarissa’s story of loneliness. Outsiders like Clarissa can only see the lively world of the Consensus when their implants are turned on. When they are turned off – as Clarissa does way more often than most – the stark reality of a decayed and empty London is revealed. Humanity has mostly moved to a virtual existence that overlaps reality because world resource usage was quickly leading to trouble. Clarissa is one of the last holdouts. Poignant in places, but I though the setting left room for more powerful events. Perhaps there will be more stories set in this bleak future?
- “In The Quake Zone” by David Gerrold [2005 novella] (Reviewed in May 2006, here’s what I said then.)
- Synopsis: Timequakes are commonplace, propelling people through the past or future. While the laws grapple with the repercussions, some manage to make a living – legal or otherwise – using the quakes. One such use is hiring “time-ravelers” (not “travelers”) to prevent something. In this story, a time-raveling detective named Mike is hired to prevent the disappearance of a young man named Jeremy Weiss.
- Review: There were several interesting aspects of this story. First and foremost was the use of the timequakes as a means of travel. Time travel is not used as a plot device here, but is essential to the story. I liked how society has accepted them as the norm and incorporate them into their laws culture. Straight out of Philip K. Dick’s “Minority Report” story, though never labeled as such, is the idea of “pre-crime” – punishing people for crimes they have yet to commit. The idea is interesting, but maybe isn’t as sound in Gerrold’s story since time is said to be mutable and therefore, how can you be sure the person still commits the crime? Another cool aspect of the story was the mystery. The search for Jeremy soon becomes a mission to save other young men who are believed to have been murdered by the same predator – a man who is targeting young, gay “pretty boys”. Ethical and moral issues arise as one considers whether Mike should save the first victim thus potentially preventing himself from ever fulfilling his contract of finding Jeremy, who is the third victim. To gather information, Mike befriends the second victim, Matt, who is having serious family troubles; more so when his homophobic father finds out his son is gay. Mike, against company mandate, intervenes on Matt’s behalf. Here, the story begins a thread where Mike wrestles with his feelings for Matt, a thread that ultimately becomes center-stage in the story’s last scene. Metaphors are meant to be drawn from Mike’s speech about how ravelers become detached from themselves and everyone around them. But this derailment of the mystery angle felt like somewhat of a cheat; like an inopportune moment to espouse some pro-gay propaganda (NTTAWTT) when the reader realizes that the Jeremy Weiss case is essentially a red herring. Still, overall the story has enough sense of wonder to make this better than most and Gerrold’s always clear and often-clever writing makes it just plain fun.
- “La Malcontenta“ by Liz Williams [2005 short story]
- Synopsis: The snowy season in a matriarchal town on Mars sees the coming of an annual celebration in which everyone celebrates; everyone except Shorn, who has been imprisoned since the last celebration because of an illicit encounter.
- Review: This story builds an intriguing mystery around Shorn’s crime. What could she have done that would cause her family to lock her away for a Martian year of 680+ days? The answer may be a bit obvious but that does little to stifle the enjoyable atmosphere of the tale.
- “The Children of Time” by Stephen Baxter [2005 short story]
- Synopsis: A series of fleeting glimpses of that span a billion or so years after the end of the world.
- Review: Baxter tends to be an author with a vision of extremes. When he goes small, he works on the microscopic scale. When he goes big, he goes really big, with a time scale that spans eons. This story is no exception. Each glimpse is through the eyes of an eleven-year-old native of the far future, separated by hundreds of millions of years. We get to see the evolution of mankind as well as the Earth itself. While the continents eventually stabilize to a single continent, the future is much more unstable and shows a quite dim destiny for mankind, despite the adventurous nature of the children.
- “Little Faces“ by Vonda N. Mcintyre [2005 novelette]
- Synopsis: : In a female society where each female lives aboard (and is bonded with) their own sentient ship, Yalnis is betrayed by a now ex-lover.
- Review: There’s some serious world-building in this story, right from the get-go where we learn that each member of this society accepts offspring “companions” from other members who manifest themselves as faces that appear on their abdomen, complete with personalities and a set of sharp teeth. (The companions can apparently also act as in-body lovers for their host parent.) Eventually, these offspring are birthed into the world when they are ready. After Yalnis is betrayed, she undergoes a thousand-year sleep to awaken in time for the launching of her (and her ship’s) daughters, but her pain of loss remains leading to some feelings of anger left to resolve with her ruthless ex-lover, Seyyan, who has taken a new lover and aims to get others to rally to her side. Yalnis’s ship and their relationship was cool; it reminded me of Peter F. Hamilton’s sentient ships in his Night’s Dawn universe, except here, the ship was less of a character.
- “Comber” by Gene Wolfe [2005 short story]
- Synopsis: A city that floats in the water, riding the cresting waves, faces a dangerous collision with another city.
- Review: A grim portrayal of what life would be like if a city were floating and subject to the terrain of the oceans. It reminded me of James Blish’s “Surface Tension” in that the environment was a fascinating backdrop to the story being told. Here, a parent makes a grim decision to help ensure the safety of his newborn son. The title refers not only to its definition of the curling waves of the sea, but also because the unnamed main character has a nervous habit of combing his fingers through his hair.
- “Audubon in Atlantis” by Harry Turtledove [2005 novella] (Reviewed in July 2006, here’s what I said then.)
- Synopsis: In and alternate 1843, artist and naturalist John James Audubon and his partner Edward Harris take a riverboat to the island of Atlantis to hunt the elusive honker bird.
- Review: The plot, if you can call it that, recounts Audubon’s efforts to find a rare bird. Audubon was known for his desire to find and paint all the birds of North America, which he would accomplish by shooting them and propping them up with wires in natural poses. (Anyone else find that true fact on the wrong side of creepy?) This is all well and good, but the story reads like a slow-moving documentary on the Nature Channel. I suppose some parallels would be drawn by the near-extinction of the honkers (thanks to the predatory nature of man) and Audubon approaching his later years, but – wow- I was hard-pressed to find anything interesting in the story’s content. One positive thing I could say about this is that the writing does a fine job of creating a 19th century feel, not only in writing style but also in dialogue.
- “Deus Ex Homine” by Hannu Rajaniemi [2005 short story] (Reviewed in July 2006, here’s what I said then.)
- Synopsis: A home front story during a war against rogue AI’s that turn people into gods. Jukka, an ex-god, meets his former lover Aileen, who is now a soldier in the war.
- Review: This one read like a Charles Stross story with its cutting edge extrapolations and just-out-of-reach portrayal of technology. Although the ideas were awesome, they are not properly fleshed out to give the story the support it deserves. We never quite know the details of the plague.
- “The Great Caruso” by Steven Popkes [2005 short story]
- Synopsis: An elderly woman starts smoking again but her new cigarettes are produced with nanotech and case some amazing changes.
- Review: The idea of inhaled nanotech is interesting, but I can’t help to think that it could have been used to better effect. As it is, it gives Norma the ability to sing opera like a pro. That’s not a bad deal for Norma who loves to sing but previously lacked the skill, but it leaves the reader wanting a little more.
- “Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck” by Neal Asher [2005 novelette]
- Synopsis: A hunting party searches for the mythical Gabbleduck creature.
- Review: Suspenseful and mostly fast-moving. The hunting party of three is led by their tour guide to hunt the mythical predator, but instead encounter a herd of its prey, the sheq. When one of the sheq is shot (a crime that carries the death penalty) things go from bad to worse as the hunters become the hunted. Add a dash of betrayal and you have the makings of a really good action piece.
- “Zima Blue” [Carrie Clay] by Alastair Reynolds [2005 novelette]
- Synopsis: A popular artist named Zima invites a reporter to explain his final masterpiece.
- Review: While “Zima Blue” contains the large-scale ideas that Reynolds’ readers have come to expect (Zima paints on an astronomical canvas), the story is really a personal story about Zima’s attempts to get back to a simpler life and help the reporter Carrie Clay do the same. The way this happens is a mystery whose telling is more than half the fun as we learn Zima’s true identity, understand Carrie’s dependence on her memory aide device and contemplate at the choices made by both.
- “Planet of the Amazon Women“ by David Moles [2005 novelette]
- Synopsis: A male Russian Muslim philosopher travels to Hippolyta, an all-female planet under quarantine because of the causal anomaly that killed off all the men.
- Review: I must admit that from the title I was hoping for a nostalgic planetary romance in which hero would travel to some planet and have adventure after adventure. But this story is far from that. The planet Hippolyta is seemingly lagging technologically and has an Arabic culture. The women are not really interested in men, which is just as well since the male protagonist, Sasha, is gay. The plot wraps itself around the ideas of cause and effect by making it altogether unclear what the truth is. For example, near the end of the story, a delirious Sasha sees a space elevator that was said to be destroyed. Is this the new reality or is it Sasha’s delirium talking? I’m sure that the created fog is intentional but it somewhat hindered my enjoyment of the story.
- “The Clockwork Atom Bomb“ by Dominic Green [2005 short story] (Reviewed in June 2006, here’s what I said then.)
- Synopsis: In a post-war near-future Earth, a United Nations weapons inspector in Congo tries to maintain a group of self-contained black holes (leftover weapons from the war) that threaten to destroy the Earth due to mishandling, improper use and ignorance.
- Review: Some interesting science, but this story did not grab me that way I had hoped. The mythology that he locals attributed to the black holes and the containment vessels (“The demons are in the machines.”) lent a nice post-apocalyptic mood to the story that was also sprinkled with dark humor.
- Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best short story.
- “Gold Mountain” by Chris Roberson [2005 novelette]
- Synopsis: In an alternate history where China is the dominant superpower, a feamle researcher with unresolved family issues gets the life story of an elderly man who helped build a space elevator.
- Review: If it seemed to me that a little too much time was spent on the world-building of the China-centric setting, it’s because McAllister’s life story was both engrossing and moving. His hard-luck story and the history of the space elevator created an effective tug-of-war between sense of wonder and poignancy. The ending attempts to up the stakes by providing an emotional punch and succeeds wonderfully.
- Note: One of a set of alternate stories in which China reaches Mars and collected in The Voyage of Night Shining White.
- “The Fulcrum” by Gwyneth Jones [2005 novelette]
- Synopsis: A pair of exercise bike-riding aliens vacationing aboard a deep space station (most space travel is tourism) become involved in dangerous intrigue involving a hidden gelatinous alien who is milked for his metallic goo.
- Review: Meh. I just couldn’t get into this one despite the colorful cast of (mostly low-life) characters. I think part of the problem was that it was sometimes hard to figure out what was going on, both plot-wise and dialog-wise.
- “Mayfly“ by Peter Watts and Derryl Murphy [2005 short story]
- Synopsis: A four-year-old girl born with an environmentally-induced birth defect (“a perfect body and a brain of mush”) is the subject of an experiment in which an artificial intelligence is introduced into her abnormal brain.
- Review: A touching and disturbing tale. The AI version of the child, Jean, converses with the scientist while, half a world away, the parents deal with the violent outbursts of the real child. Wires emerge from her head like some gruesome marionette allowing the parents to turn off their child with a remote control.
- “Two Dreams on Trains“ by Elizabeth Bear [2005 short story]
- Synopsis: A poor woman in a flooded New Orleans hopes for a better future for her son. But he prefers tagging spaceships with graffiti instead of trying do something with his life by working as a ship crew member.
- Review: The dark and wet New Orleans is a dismal, dank and immensely attractive setting. The remains of the city float on the water and the town serves as a spaceport for ships. The hopes of the mother, Patience, are summarily dashed when her son gets caught tagging a ship and she realizes her sights are set way higher than those of her only child.
- “Angel of Light“ by Joe Haldeman [2005 short story] (Reviewed in July 2006, here’s what I said then.)
- Synopsis: In a future where the Christian and Islamic religions have merged, a Chrislam man finds an old science fiction magazine whose cover and contents he finds shocking.
- Review: This is a sf story written for sf fans and is remarkably effective given the kitsch value. The sf mag in question is the Summer 1944 copy of Thrilling Wonder Stories. The man takes the magazine to the market where it finds an unusual prospective new owner.
- “Burn“ by James Patrick Kelly [2005 novella] (Reviewed in June 2006, here’s what I said then.)
- Synopsis: On the planet Walden – founded by a technophobe who offered its residents a “simple life” alternative to the post-human existence being chosen by most – a firefighter named Spur encounters a group of “upsiders” who set him on the path enlightenment.
- Review: Kelly has crafted a very engaging story about discovery, fate and choice and set it on a world caught in an interesting predicament. The planet of Walden was intentionally made by founder Jack Winter to be without the technology shared by the post-human Thousand Worlds; it’s an experiment in un-enhanced humanity. Here, Kelly is playing off the anti-tech stance of Henry David Thoreau and even his accidental setting of a fire in Walden Woods. Anything more than the preached simple life is a threat to Walden’s Transcendent State, yet some of residents of Walden still seek the forbidden knowledge. The pukpuks are an extremist terrorist group that deliberately set fires to the voluminous forests of Walden (and themselves) in protest of their forced way of life. Firefighters like Spur, whose real name is Prosper Gregory Leung, are there to patch the damage, seemingly content with the way of things. Spur starts the story after a bad fire in which his brother-in-law Vic was killed, a traumatic event that causes recurring nightmares and puts his already-strenuous marriage with his wife, Comfort, on even shakier ground. In the hospital, Spur uses their advanced “tell” communications device (such an off-putting device to have on a Luddite world!) and catches the attention of off-worlder High Gregory, who soon arrives with a contingent to set things straight in Spurs farming village. Let’s just say altruism is not necessarily their motive and that Walden’s tenet of simplicity is threatened. One of the many strengths of this story is having Spur as the point-of-view character. Through his simple yet inquisitive eyes we see the intended value of Walden. Of course, being science fiction readers we also soon realize that the upsiders are post-humans and so it’s easy to get immersed in Spur’s discovery of the bigger picture. Although there are one or two long-winded infodumps that make this novella seem a tad longer than it needed to be, Spur’s story – complete with discovery, action, intrigue, a few family secrets and heartwarming imagery – is very good indeed.
- Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novella.
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