MIND MELD: Whatever Happened to Interstellar Travel in Science Fiction?
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
A lot of recent science fiction appears to take place on Earth, and only a minority of space-based science fiction taking place outside the solar system. Novels and stories involving travel to the stars and interstellar travel seems to be out-of-date or out-of-fashion, and even Hard SF treatments of interstellar travel seem as realistic as Star Wars.
We asked this week’s panelists:
Here’s what they said…
I think that like everything else, fads in science fiction run in cycles, and lately there’s been a big ol’ dystopian wave going on. But it’s not as if deep space science fiction, or SF featuring far-flung space civilizations isn’t still being written. Charlie Stross, Iain Banks, Dan Simmons, Greg Bear, Chris Moriarty, C.J. Cherryh–heck, I’ve written a couple of books dealing with far-flung space travel myself.
If you were to nudge the focus of the question over to whether near-future and near-earth SF has been getting more *awards* attention lately, I think you’d be more accurate.
But there are fads in criticism the same as everything else.
So in the current edition of SF Signal’s Mind Meld we are asked to consider whether FTL travel, space empires, crashing suns and the like are no longer better than the intellectual property of a certain Hollywood franchise or two. I mean, you have that pesky Einstein fellow and his laws. You have all that distance. You have the possibility that we’ll drown ourselves, choke ourselves, blow ourselves up, starve ourselves or (insert your favorite apocalyptic scenario HERE) ourselves.
Well, maybe. Maybe we’re not good enough or smart enough or tough enough to survive the next (5) (10) (50) (100) (500) (1,000) (take your pick) years. Maybe the universe is working against us when it comes to visiting other stars. So how can we get around that?
First, we can be optimistic. While it is currently pretty popular (or trendy) for science fiction to be more pessimistic than optimistic, I think these things go in cycles. The Cold War led to a lot of science fiction where the world ended in fire. The long slow grinding of the 1970’s led to dystopian cyberpunk. The threat of climate change led to a new variation on the nuclear apocalypse. But in between the down cycles we had cycles where science fiction had optimism. It might have been overshadowed by the last down cycle, but they were there. So, let’s assume that the human race survives. Where next?
Well, we could build an empire (so to speak) here in the Solar System and “play” in that with our fiction. With eight (nine) planets and countless moons, asteroids and comets, there is plenty of real estate and story possibilities around. Look at the McAndrew stories of the late Charles Sheffield, the Grand Tour series of Ben Bova, the classic book The Planet Strappers by Ramond Z. Gallun (available free at your various sites such as Project Gutenberg or Manybooks), Paul McAuley’s recent duo of The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun or John Varley’s classic Eight Worlds books and stories such as The Ophiuchi Hotline and Picnic on Nearside. Mining colonies on Mercury, balloon cities in the atmosphere of Venus, O’Neil colonies around Earth and the Moon, terraformers (or not) on Mars, miners in the Belt, gas miners and robots around Jupiter, surfers of the rings of Saturn…all the way out to the cometary halo, where we can have Freeman Dyson’s genetically-altered trees and humans living in bio-suits such as those found in the works of John Varley and Spider Robinson.
Not enough? It should be, but let’s make the Big Leap.
Even if we can’t do faster-than-light travel, if we can’t get around Einstein, or jump via a collapser (Joe Haldeman), or find a stargate (television or numerous books or webcomics) or warp space (television and more)…you could set stories using the slowboats. Both Sheffield and Varley had epic journeys not quite to the next stars. Charles Stross did the same in his Accelerandro stories. Bussard Interstellar Ramjets, multi-generation colony ships, laser-boosted sailships crewed by the Habermen or the Scanners or even downloaded intelligences. Take the era of Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey where the speed of communication equals the speed of travel, find a way of extending lifespans through artificial means of playing with Einstein and see what you can come up with. Some can find vast time-and-space spanning success within these limits (see the earlier works of Alastair Reynolds as a fantastic example).
Or…let’s play with physics. We can go the classic route. Hurtling worlds. The Galactic Patrol. Superdreadnoughts tearing up the ether. Scintillating lenses and steely-eyed heroes and heroines. I revisit “Doc” Smith, Edmund “World-Wrecker” Hamilton and others every few years. The stories creak, the science is obsolete, but those guys could chew up the scenery, errr, the universe.
Or we can take a more rigid approach. Find a way around Einstein. Keep it consistent. Bring it to the fore, or keep it in the background. How about…different physics (Greg Egan’s Clockwork Rocket)? Zones of different physics in the galaxy (Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep and its prequel/sequel)? Plain old FTL all the way across (Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, even the cinema of Babylon 5, Star Trek, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica).
The play’s the thing. FTL, the Galactic Patrol, galactic empires (rising or falling) and the like are no more or less relevant today than they ever were. It’s up to the storyteller, the writer, the screen writer, the director, the game designer to make it something we want to experience.
The state of the genre may reflect the state of the world. There are a number of reasons why stories about interstellar travel are low in English-written SF currently. (I can’t speak to other SF.) The defunding of NASA’s manned spaceflight program, health concerns over the effects of radiation on astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, and pervasive feelings of uncertainty about the economic and ecological future do not offer much in the way of hope for space travel as we have previously envisioned it at the moment. Quantum physics rather than astrophysics seems to be a preferred means of exploration at the moment, investigating multiverses rather than space.
However, commercial space travel is becoming more viable, with tourism as a driving force rather than science or defense. As we further our knowledge of space and manned flight, it might be that the type of story we’re likely to tell changes: commercial empires rather than military ones, with the drive to find Risa more a motivation than that for expansion.
That said, interstellar SF hasn’t disappeared. I’m highly anticipating Garth Nix’s A Confusion of Princes, a foray into space empire. Although I have yet to read it, Beth Revis’ Across the Universe, a story of a generation ship, has made a big splash in YA. Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Diving the Wreck, City of Ruins, and Boneyards look at space from a far-future perspective, delving the wreckage of forgotten civilizations. Elizabeth Bear recently concluded a trilogy about a generation ship (Dust, Chill, Grail.) Sarah Creasy’s Song of Scarabaeus looks at terraforming out of control. While near-future SF is popular right now, the vast expanse of space hasn’t lost its appeal.
Science fiction has always been a mirror of our own world, a way to explore the extremes of behavior, environments, or politics. Grand space opera can draw human politics, warfare, interactions, and ideologies on a vast canvas — such explorations are perfectly valid. Clinging to a detail that “faster-than-light travel doesn’t exist” is really missing the point of galactic epics. Science fiction isn’t *about* how a space drive works!
Interstellar travel has definitely turned out to be harder than we thought it would. For one thing, everything about space travel is a bit harder than the optimists thought in the 1950’s. If there’s one thing that building the International Space Station taught us, it’s that building things in space is hard. Even space suits are difficult and unwieldy. So without some kind of major economic incentive–some Lex Luthor-style knock-out monopolistic “we own all the water & you’ll pay us whatever we ask for to get it” kind of pay-off–then neither a near-FTL drive nor a generation spaceship looks to be in the works.
These days I’ve found the uploaded brains futures to be a little more convincing. I’m thinking particularly of the post-human futures of Greg Egan and Charles Stross. In Diaspora and Schild’s Ladder, Egan’s post-humans are just about all digital (especially after the surface of the Earth gets scorched by a nearby neutron star collision in Diaspora), and similar characters exist in Charles Stross’ Accelerando series. At that point you can send very small spaceships out into the vasty deeps of interstellar space. You don’t have to have any provisions for life support, just enough dedicated computer space. The residents can keep themselves entertained in VRs or go into sleep-mode for the duration. Upon reaching their destination, they can activate nanobots to use the local resources to make whatever else they need. By the time there’s sufficient interstellar architecture in Schild’s Ladder, you can just beam all your personal information to your destination at lightspeed, and be downloaded an re-instantiated on the far side. Nice and fast, no fuss, no muss.
Both of these authors look at things in terms of information instead of physical matter. Trade exists, but instead of shipping around huge masses of Stuff, there’s trade of information, designs, and ideas. Given the way our world is trending now, that makes a certain amount of sense. It doesn’t seem terribly conducive to galactic empires and system-spanning wars–Egan assumes that an entire galaxy will have enough resources that people won’t really have much reason to fight over them, and armies have a lot of Stuff to schlep around–but this kind of framework still allows plenty of interesting far-future space stories to be told.
It’s interesting how quickly SF writers have been abandoning interstellar stories. I think part of what we’re seeing is an exodus from SF for the land of fantasy. So there are just fewer SF novels and therefore fewer galactic empires. But it’s not the whole story. I’m feeling resistant to reading (or writing) stories of FTL travel, because of the lack of realism you mention. Time was when we could enjoy more technologically simplistic adventure stories, but for me the thrill is gone. Enter Alastair Reynolds, Ian Banks and others who do the interstellar technology at a level that is satisfying if not downright astonishing. So it definitely can be done. One needs to posit at least a Type III (Kardashev scale) civilization to do it. Imagining that sort of advanced society is quite challenging for most authors. I gave it a shot with The Entire and The Rose. But lacking a PhD in astronomy, it took a lot of work and creative handwaving. If one is mostly interested in stories about people, it leaves the writer of interstellar dramas with the dilemma of how much of the story is working out the tech and when that becomes a burden to the reader.
That said, I still wonder where the galactic stories are. There may be a more interesting “state of the genre” issue involved. Are we really, I have to ask myself, demanding more sophisticated stories?
Look at what we’re reading in fantasy! The most popular offerings are not especially subtle or demanding. So. If we lump together the trend of more fantasy/less SF; and more solar system-based SF/fewer galaxy-wide civilizations, I wonder if we are going through a phase of retrenchment. If we are feeling battered by seemingly intractable economic and global problems so that, perhaps unconsciously, we’re ready for stories closer to home. In science fiction, we’re leaning toward stories that show us we’ve cleaned up our backyard (before moving down the block.) Or those novels in which Mars is our second chance to get it right–but it’s still in the neighborhood. Therefore, I think we are entering a timid period in SF, one in which our uncertainty and guilt have even spawned a whole movement for more “mundane” SF. I understand. I feel some of that, too. But I’m also hoping it’s a temporary trend and that this state of the genre is just a small blip in the span of our literature.
No, I don’t think interstellar travel, space empires, etc. are at best science fantasy any more than they ever were. Or, putting it the other way, they haven’t become any less likely, in the recent past. They’ve always been the stuff of fantasy. That didn’t used to be a problem.
The thing that *has* changed, I think, is the requirement that science fiction be somehow rigorous to be taken seriously. When I look back at the classic science fiction that I grew up with, a lot of it didn’t pass the sniff test. Larry Niven had teleportation, giant alien cat warriors, and human’s eugenically bred for their luck. Arthur Clarke had God turning out the stars. Herbert had giant freaking worms digging through a desert rich in psychoactive space fuel. Unsophisticated as I was, I didn’t see anything wrong with that. Still don’t.
I see two things happening with the genre. The first is that it’s becoming the primary idiom of pop culture. The second is that, in response to that, there is a narrower and narrower definition of “real” science fiction which uses terms like “science fantasy” to exclude work which isn’t somehow pure enough. I think that there’s a real risk of science fiction going the way of jazz music and poetry in which it becomes a more and more sophisticated, narrow, and inaccessible form dedicated to meeting the standards of a smaller and smaller elite. But I also think the consequences if that does happen are pretty minor, because the market for accessible science fantasies like The Demolished Man or Dread Empire’s Fall or the Vorkosigan Saga appears to still be wide open.
Interesting question at a time when our country downsized NASA and left space exploration to private enterprise and the Russians we once feared. Personally, I believe it’s clear FTL is just a pipedream at this point and very fantastical, although it’s a trope which is certainly fun for readers and writers. Space empires? Given recent discoveries of an Earth-like planet at Kepler 22b and similarity of some of our neighboring planet’s moons to Earth, I wouldn’t want to rule out the existence of alien species capable of having galactic empires, science, and technology we have never heard of. Right now, yes, they are just fictional, but the possibility, to me, is not.
I remember Gene Roddenberry describing how the Navy sent experts to the set to find out how the Enterprise’s sliding doors worked. They wanted that technology for ships and subs. Unfortunately, it was done by men sliding the doors behind the scenes. But the point is, the desire to create such doors was inspired by the stories.
It was interesting to me to see io9’s recent call for writers to break rules again, such as using FTL. I have argued that given the nihilistic nature of so much of culture and writing today, hopeful stories are trending again and a return to the Golden Age type larger-than-life heroes where good triumphs over evil may soon be in vogue. I think people want to be inspired and space opera is a subgenre which tends to do that very well. Which of us as boys didn’t dream of being Buck Rogers or Superman or some other hero from the stories of our youth? I know women who dreamed of being Wilma Deering or Supergirl. And I think as a result, interstellar travel will continue to be of interest. After all, fighting each other is a reminder how conflicted our world is. But bringing the world together to fight an alien menace is far more inspiring and gives us hope we can come together when it counts as humanity for a common cause. It also inspires in us the desire to be heroes/heroines and rise above our circumstances to change the world for the better. Generally, human beings tend to look at anything strange or different as threatening so alien space empires discovered via interstellar travel (by us or by them) provide possibilities for threats from the strange which are hard to resist in creative minds—not just of writers but also of readers. I think they will continue to be fodder for stories and movies for a long time to come. And as such, they inspire us to dream and with dreaming comes a desire to make dreams reality. In the same way, people will desire to travel to the stars both for discovery and for glory.
As long as science fiction can continue to inspire such dreams and goals, I think the genre is in plenty healthy shape.
Okay. I got that out of my system. Now to answer your question…
Somewhere along the way, the definition science fiction got narrower and narrower and narrower until it became this tiny sliver of what it had been in the past. I have a calendar from Asgard Press with old pulp covers on it, and all the covers depict unbelievable things—bug-eyed monsters, ray guns, interstellar travel. This month’s image features a woman in a tight metal uniform using a laser pistol as she carries an unconscious man to her spaceship. The cover is from 1950. What’s fantasy about this (besides her spacesuit)? Well, back then, no woman would carry a man. Women weren’t in charge of anything. Women didn’t rescue their men with guns while the poor guy was unconscious… And lookie. I haven’t even gotten to the science yet.
So what I’m seeing isn’t the rise of science fantasy. What I’m seeing is science fiction returning to its roots. The rise of space opera (thank heavens!) has led to more readers, because readers like adventure, good storytelling, great settings, and even better character—not accurate science. Accurate science is a spice, a bonus, not the point of the piece. That said, the new space opera and the new interstellar sf has much more accurate science than the old interstellar sf.
Here’s my opinion: the folks who whine that the new space opera and all the successful interstellar sf is “science fantasy” can talk in snarky labels all they want. What it doesn’t hide is the fact that interstellar adventure and good storytelling gets more readers than that narrow stuff which passed for sf ten years ago. If we don’t want readers, we can go back to that. I personally like the direction the genre is heading — at light speed.
Maybe we’re passing through the bottom of a valley in the sine wave function, so to speak, because we don’t see as many Hard SF stories in outer space as other subgenres of science fiction. This kind of thing has been known to happen – it did in the 1980s and 1990s, after the Cyberpunk Movement got all SF shook up: suddenly everything was cyberpunk or tried so hard to follow the cyberpunk guidelines that the average reader could very well feel she wasn’t having anything else in her daily SFnal dietary requirements. (Of course every other subgenre known to human fandom was still being produced, but who was publicizing it?)
Today, almost thirty years after the cyberpunks, we have a much more divided genre. That’s amazing, because of the sheer size of the subgenres we have now. Consider steampunk, for instance: inside steampunk (which itself is an offspring of cyberpunk) we now have clockpunk and dieselpunk as well (and probably even more – I’m consulting right now Jeff VanderMeer and S.J. Chambers’s The Steampunk Bible, and there are many more, though some of them, like *mannerspunk*, seem to be nothing more than a good joke, on the other hand authors like Gail Carriger have already spread the word about this subsubgenre (?) as well, so who can tell? I’m for them all.
As for the Hard SF matter, that’s another question. I don’t think interstellar travel and similar tropes can be considered Science Fantasy today. *They just are not being seen in the big picture*, at least in most of the stories at this particular point in time. To mention two excellent novels published in 2011 that couldn’t be more different from each other, Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief and Kameron Hurley’s God’s War – the first abides by hard science (physics, mathematics); the second follows a story that is a well-tempered mix of several tropes (far future, military SF, biopunk) that are not constrained by today’s science, but by good, old extrapolation. But this is not something new: the gap between Rajaniemi and Hurley is pretty much the same as the gap between Verne and Wells – and that’s good.
The question implies that the technologies that would make interstellar travel, space empires, et cetera are likely to be found impossible. Being impossible they must therefore be considered science fantasy as opposed to science fiction. However, I take a simple definition for myself: “science fiction in the literature that describes the impact of technological change on society.” That definition does not touch on whether or not the technologies are possible. As Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Lots of science fiction stories in the 1930s and 1940s dealt with scientific postulations that seemed impossible, and yet those stories are no less science fiction. Those postulations dealt primarily with how a change in technology would affect society.
As to what this says about the state of the genre, that requires a more lengthy response.
Does a lot of recent science fiction take place on Earth? I read a fair amount of short fiction published but I barely scrape the surface on the novels so I can’t say one way or the other. Such a premise is always based on the perception of the reader. Readers who don’t enjoy interstellar travel and space empires won’t see them because they aren’t looking for them. The reverse is true, of course, as well. I read only two new science fiction novels in 2011, one of which (11/22/63 by Stephen King) took place on Earth, the other (Firebird by Jack McDevitt) roamed the galaxy. My experience on novels, therefore, is 50-50.
And what of short fiction? There I can speak with a little more authority, although having only read about 120 pieces of short fiction in 2011, I’m still vastly behind the curve for the entirety of what was published. Catherine Schaffer’s “An Interstellar Incident” (Analog, Jan/Feb 2012) assumes a kind of galactic empire. “In Which Faster-Than-Light Travel Solves All of Our Problems” by Chris Stabback (Clarkesworld, Dec 2011) is about a lonely interstellar pilot. “The Sighted Watchmaker” by Vylar Kaftan (Lightspeed, Dec 2011) takes the entire universe as its scope. “The People of Pele” by Ken Liu (Asimov’s, February 2012) deals with interstellar travel and the effects of relativity and time dilation on people. Also by Ken Liu, “Five Elements of the Heart Mind” (Lightspeed, January 2012) follows a survivor of an interstellar starship to a long lost colony.
True, these are a sampling and it is easy to select a sample that makes your case, but these are stories appearing in recent magazines, and not just the old-guard magazines but the newer ones as well.
Suppose, however, that such a trend exists, that writers are writing more science fiction that takes place on Earth or in the solar system. Why? I can think of several reasons:
- First, there is the simple reaction against all of those galaxy-spanning stories that for many people on the fringes of the genre, provide the cliche for everything that is science fiction. This kind of trend is by no means new. After World War II, stories of post-apocalyptic disasters were rampant. They were extremely popular at first, but gradually grew less and less popular as the market was flooded with them and the tide subsided. Then, too, Isaac Asimov used to take heat for writing stories that spanned the galaxy and purposely put out a collection of stories that stayed much closer to home. The name of that collection: Earth Is Room Enough.
- Second, writers no longer see new avenues to explore in deep space and so why waste stories postulating how space travel will impact our society when there are lots of other technologies brewing that can and will have a more immediate impact. We therefore see lots of stories about information technology, a subset of which are stories about immortality through computers, or the development of real AI (for instance, Robert J. Sawyer’s recent WWW series). We also see lots of stories about how humanity’s technology has effected Earth’s climate and the impact that might have on society.
- Third, science fiction is maturing as a literature and in doing so, it is focusing ever more narrowly on the human condition in relation to technology, with the emphasis on human condition. This would make galaxy-spanning stories less likely candidates when stories closer to home might be more illustrative. It becomes harder to tell a story in a galaxy far, far, away when that same story can be told right here. That said, there are exceptions to this. Kij Johnson’s “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” (Asimov’s, Nov 2011) takes place on some distant world, but is clearly focused and centered on the human condition there.
That said, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of interstellar, galactic empire stories. They may be yesterday’s news at the moment, but they are the stories that helped shape the genre and writers will be trying to emulate and improve upon them for decades to come.
The question seems to be: is that a good thing or a bad thing? And the answer is that it depends upon the quality of the story. Our canon would be considerably the poorer if Ray Bradbury hadn’t written The Martian Chronicles because there’s no oxygen on Mars, or Isaac Asimov had forgone the Foundation Trilogy because he knew we could zip between the planets the way we do between cities.
There’s a place for hard science, and a place for science fantasy; the only thing there’s no place for is poor writing, and that’s the key to why every type of story can still find a home as long as it’s told with some grace and skill. As someone who, as a reader and as a writer, has always considered the characters more important than the science, I have no problem with this at all.
The whole idea of space travel is in serious danger of becoming “just soooo 20th century” in the public imagination. Ideas can become associated with a particular era, as airships have become associated with the 1920s for us; after the Hindenburg accident, airship travel became inconceivable, and the further it recedes in time the less viable it becomes as a current or future technology. Apollo was a 1960s thing, and our ideas about space travel have become all wrapped up in the issues of the time–the cold war, civil rights, and nuclear brinkmanship. The idea that going back to the moon might be relevant for our *current* social and global situation is getting harder and harder to credit.
In other words, it’s not just interstellar travel–it’s space in general that’s going out of fashion. And once it’s out of fashion–once it’s irrevocably associated with the 20th century in the public mind–it will be very hard for it to ever come back. There is a cost barrier to making it relevant to the ordinary person; this barrier is 100% the fault of NASA and the giant and bloated aerospace companies it has supported for the past forty years. A chink has appeared in their armor recently, in the form of the company SpaceX, but it remains to be seen whether SpaceX will be successful.
It doesn’t help that the visions of interstellar travel that are presented on TV and in movies are entirely fantastical and physically impossible. Star Trek TNG succeeded in making space travel look dull, torpedoing an adventure and exploration premise with stories about personnel problems in an idealized office environment. Stargate annihilated space entirely in favor of travel-as-telephone-call. With these images relentlessly pushing down any realistic cultural picture of what interstellar travel might be like (one-way, arduous, extremely slow, but with the payoff of entire worlds at the other end), how can we expect a new generation of writers to extend and celebrate this subject?
It has always been science fantasy, even in days of yore. If we stick to the science we know, interstellar travel is barely possible to a few nearby stars, and a galactic empire spanning them a logistical impossibility. A few people have tried relativistic “space empires.” Poul Anderson, Alan Steele, Dan Hatch. Given a faster-than-light mode of transport, then much becomes possible; but at the current state of the art, FTL is itself a fantasy. (Maybe. Unless you’re a Swiss neutrino headed for la dolce vita.) But typically we have either subspace (as Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series) or wormholes, Alderson Points (Niven and Pournelle), gateways (Lois Bujold in her Miles Vorkosigan series) or Krasnarov tubes (which I have used in my Spiral Arm series.) For some of these there are fuzzy edge scientific speculation, but it’s science that borders on fantasy.
Furthermore, any galactic empire worth its salt would by nature be so far future-ward that we would be in the position of an ancient Sumerian trying to write about life in present day New York City. Even were Gilgamesh vouchsafed a vision of Manhattan in 2012, how on earth could he possibly describe it? He didn’t even know what a chariot was. He didn’t have a word for velocity. He might (barely) recognize New York City as something like his own pueblo back in good ol’ Sumeria, but nothing about it would be comprehensible.
Fortunately, SF is not tasked with the responsibility of committing journalism on the future. Interstellar galactic empires are not really about interstellar galactic empires, are they? Gilgamesh might not know what airplanes or cell phones are, but he would recognize love and jealousy, bravery and greed, desperation and complacency. He might value these differently than we do; but he would recognize human nature. And that’s what we look for in our space operas. Stories about people set against a grand and variegated backdrop. Interstellar settings have the sheer sweep of canvas and scope for adventure that we can no longer get from Darkest Africa or Trips to Mars. We already know there are no Lost Roman Cities, no bone chess Martian hives. Any story with those settings would need to be remorselessly realistic. We already know what’s there. We can write gripping stories, sure; but that are not the same kind of stories we once got from City at World’s End or Foundation and Empire.
Meanwhile, our physical retreat from space was presaged by our literary retreat from space. Interest has waned. Computers and genetic engineering are the hot speculative sciences these days. They have generated splendid stories; but not the same kind of stories.
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