Literary and cultural historians describe science fiction (SF) as the premiere narrative form of modernity because authors working in this genre extrapolate from Enlightenment ideals and industrial practices to imagine how educated people using machines and other technologies might radically change the material world. This kind of future-oriented technoscientific speculation lends itself to social and political speculation as well. While authors working in other literary modes can represent the past and present from new perspectives, only those allied with speculative fiction show us how intervening into the material world can change human relations and generate new futures as well. Thus SF enables authors to dramatize widespread cultural hopes and fears about new technoscientific formations as they emerge at specific historical moments.
The history of SF is very much bound up with the history of modern technoscientific development and the proliferation of writing that accompanied it. By means of the first scientific journals, scholars associated with the scientific academies of seventeenth-century France and Great Britain disseminated new ideas about the quantifiable nature of the material world and the importance of human agents within that world. By the eighteenth century such ideas had become central to the philosophical writings of Immanuel Kant and David Hume and the socio-political treatises of Adam Smith and Voltaire. These ideas inspired the public imagination as well. This was particularly apparent in books such as Charles Leadbetter’s Astronomy (1727), periodicals such as Eliza Haywood’s The Female Spectator (1744–46), and natural histories such as René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur’s Histoire Naturelle des Insects (1734–42). While books and periodicals introduced scientific ideas to the newly literate middle class, natural histories inspired readers to become amateur scientists themselves by applying close observation skills to the world around them.
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries also saw the publication of the first proto-science fiction stories. The authors of these stories were often science enthusiasts who engaged new scientific ideas in their fiction. For example, Voltaire’s passion for physics led to the creation of a fully functional laboratory at Château de Cirey and the 1752 publication of Micromégas, a fantastic voyage story in which human scientist-explorers learn about galactic physics from a Jovian space traveler whom they encounter at the North Pole. In 1818 British author Mary Shelley drew upon her reading in pre-Darwinian evolutionary theory and her experience with public demonstrations of galvanism to create Frankenstein, which follows the tragic adventures of an isolated young scientist who uses electricity in a misguided attempt to create a new race of beings that will worship him. Despite their apparent differences, Voltaire and Shelley’s stories both insist that science can yield great rewards as long as it is practiced according to the established methods of the scientific community. They also mark the emergence of SF’s two oldest archetypes: the heroic scientistexplorer who shares knowledge with his intellectual brethren and the mad scientist who makes disastrous decisions that wreak havoc.
The next generation of speculative fiction writers turned their attention to what would become the central interest of SF: the creation of machines that could transform both the material and social worlds. This new interest emerged at the height of the Industrial Revolution, when steam-powered technologies enabled new modes of locomotion and new methods of production. These developments fostered the proliferation of new trade routes, factories, and urban spaces. They also fostered the rise of a new professional: the engineer. Engineering schools, including the National School of Bridges and Highways in France and Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in the U.S., first opened their doors at the turn of the nineteenth century; by the mid-nineteenth century graduates of these schools could join specialized organizations dedicated to civil, mechanical, and mining engineering. While engineering was an overwhelmingly masculine profession, in the late nineteenth century technical institutes began granting degrees to the female students who would go on to create the discipline of scientific home management, or domestic engineering.
New technologies and professions were central to the speculative stories that authors on both sides of the Atlantic published in the nineteenth century. These authors conveyed their ideas about the future of industrial society by updating older fantastic narrative traditions. The European leaders of this experiment were Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Like Voltaire before him, Verne used the extraordinary voyage to spark a sense of wonder in readers regarding the marvels of the physical universe. However, he updated this story type in 1867’s From the Earth to the Moon, 1871’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth, and 1872’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by extrapolating from contemporary transportation technologies to show how humans (rather than aliens) might travel to exotic locales on the Earth and amongst the stars. In Great Britain, Wells used the future war story – a narrative form often employed by government officials to argue for increased spending on war technologies – to show how submarines, airplanes, and bombs might herald the end of war altogether. This is particularly evident in 1903’s “The Last Ironclads,” 1908’s The War in the Air, and 1914’s The World Set Free, where warring nation-states destroy themselves by underestimating new military technologies, thereby paving the way for the emergence of peaceful, scientifically managed global civilizations. In the stories of both Verne and Wells, the success of new technocultural endeavors depends on the action of a new technocultural hero: the creative engineer who works for the good of all people, rather than the benefit of any individual person, business, or nation.
The principles of creative engineering were even more central to the technological utopias of American authors Edward Bellamy and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward 2000–1887 depicts a future America reorganized along lines later associated with the Fordist factory, with all work parceled out amongst specially trained individuals. In contrast to the often overworked and underpaid factory workers of his own day, however, Bellamy imagined that the citizens of America 2000 who volunteered for menial labor would be rewarded with drastically reduced hours and that all workers would enjoy high pay, abundant goods, and early retirement at the age of 45. In a similar vein, the female citizens of Gilman’s 1915 Herland enjoy unprecedented living standards because their wide-scale application of the principles of domestic engineering transform their hostile tropical land into a fertile paradise. They also extend the scientific management of the home to the scientific management of people, combining eugenics with education to create perfectly adjusted children. Thus Bellamy and Gilman built upon the utopian tradition extending back to Sir Thomas More by demonstrating how new and better societies might be created not just by the application of rational thought, but also by the application of rational industrial processes.
The first four decades of the twentieth century marked the consolidation of engineering as the premiere profession of the modern era. They also marked the height of excitement about engineering in the public imagination, especially as it was expressed in the philosophy of technocracy, a pseudo-populist movement that emerged in reaction to the Great Depression and that, at its height, boasted over half a million followers. Led by engineer Howard Scott and the professors of Columbia University’s Industrial Engineering department, technocrats advocated the creation of a scientifically educated and technically skilled populace whose best and brightest would naturally rise to the top. This technoscientific elite would apply scientific and engineering principles to political and economic problems, thereby mitigating the woes of the Great Depression and laying the foundation for a utopian, post-scarcity society.
This period also saw the consolidation of SF as a distinct genre complete with its own literary community, publishing outlets, and stylistic conventions. The birth of genre SF is associated with the founding of Amazing Stories in 1926 and Astounding Stories in 1930. These two magazines – printed on the cheap wood-pulp paper that would give this period of SF history its name – were the first dedicated solely to speculative fiction. While authors, editors, and fans worked collaboratively to establish SF, one man is generally recognized as the father of the genre: Luxembourg-American author, inventor, and technocrat Hugo Gernsback. As the first editor of Amazing Stories, Gernsback developed three rules to ensure that speculative fiction would get readers excited about science and technology: “good” SF would be organized around a prophetic vision of the technoscientific future; it would didactically explain how that future came to be; and it would do so in an entertaining way, with approximately 25 percent of each SF narrative dedicated to science and technology and 75 percent dedicated to adventure. These rules inform Gernsback’s own writing, most notably in 1911’s Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660. Like other utopias, Gernsback’s is comprised of dialog between a native of the utopia in question (here, the world-famous superscientist Ralph 124C) and a naïve visitor who stands in for the reader (Ralph’s love interest, Alice 212B). But Gernsback departed from the staid utopian tradition by framing his characters’ conversations about the marvels of New York City 2660 with action sequences featuring avalanches, invisible assailants, and battles in outer space.
The elements that Gernsback added to the utopian narrative tradition – depictions of scientists and engineers as action heroes, the celebration of fantastic gadgets, and planet-spanning adventures – became central to the pulpera space opera. The two authors who perfected this sub-genre were Edmond Hamilton and E.E. “Doc” Smith. In the linked Interstellar Patrol stories which ran from 1928 to 1930 and stand-alone tales such as 1934’s “Thundering Worlds,” Hamilton imagines far-off futures where humans create intergalactic technocracies while battling with rogue stars, invading aliens, and even the death of their own sun. Meanwhile, Smith’s 1928–63 Skylark and 1934–48 Lensman series follow the adventures of a human technoscientific elite who ventures into space only to learn that they are key to the outcome of billion-year-old battles between good and evil. Unlike Gernsback before them, neither Hamilton nor Smith spent much time explaining how their characters created their technocivilizations. However, what science they did include tended to be relatively accurate. Most importantly, the triumphant tone of much space opera neatly conveyed the technoscientific optimism central to early SF.
Technocratic ideals also permeated pulp-era thought-variant stories, which were driven by speculative ideas rather than gadgets. This is particularly apparent in Stanley G. Weinbaum’s The Adaptive Ultimate, which updated the Frankenstein narrative for the modern scientific era. Weinbaum’s 1935 story follows the adventures of two scientists who develop a serum based on insect hormones that enables wounded organisms to heal themselves. After serious ethical debate, the overly enthusiastic scientists decide to skip standard testing protocols and inject the serum into a dying young woman. When she turns into an amoral creature bent on conquering the world, Weinbaum’s scientists recognize that they cannot simply, as Victor Frankenstein did, reject their creation. Instead, they take responsibility for their actions and contain the threat of the young woman, thereby transforming themselves from mad to heroic scientists. The principles of technocracy were also fundamental to John W. Campbell’s 1939 Forgetfulness, which takes place on a far-future Earth where humans live in modest glass domes situated on the outskirts of ruined megacities. At the end of the story readers learn that these humans have not lost control of science and technology, but have actively chosen telepathic over technoscientific ways of being to avoid repeating their war-torn history. Thus Campbell’s protagonists apply engineering techniques to the problem of human history and gain control over evolution itself.
The middle decades of the twentieth century seemed to epitomize the technocratic ideals of the pulp-era SF community. The new connections forged with industry and government during World War II led to a period of record growth for American science in the Cold War era. Much of this growth occurred in the two areas of research seen as key to national defense: atomic energy and space exploration. The expansion of defense spending, combined with the consumer demands of a newly affluent public, spurred the rapid development of American technology as well, especially as it pertained to the creation of automated machines designed to run complex industrial operations. Indeed, while atomic energy and space exploration research promised to transform the American future, automation seemed poised to transform America in the present as factory workers began working with robots and computer experts swelled the ranks of the technoscientific elite. The technocratic transformation of labor extended to women’s work as well. During World War II women were encouraged to express their patriotism by working in laboratories and factories while men went overseas to fight. Afterward, they were encouraged to continue serving their country by applying their technoscientific expertise to life in the suburbs. In particular, women were expected to prepare their homes for the possibility of nuclear attack and foster family togetherness through the judicious consumption of domestic goods. Thus men and women alike were figured as essential to the United States’s development as a technocultural world leader.
Much like science, SF experienced a Golden Age in the 1940s and 1950s. Prior to World War II, SF authors were often dismissed for writing about impossible sciences and technologies. Afterward, they were hailed as visionary prophets and invited to consult with entertainment, industry, and government leaders alike. This period also marked the appearance of the first SF anthologies, the beginning of the SF paperback novel trade, and the explosion of SF storytelling across radio, film, and television. Even with all these changes, magazines remained the heart of the SF community. The most important magazine editor of this period was physicist-turned-pulp SF author John W. Campbell, who took over Astounding Science Fiction (formerly Astounding Stories) in 1939. Campbell believed that SF was an important part of the larger scientific discourse already changing history. As such, he insisted that authors write stories that were logically extrapolated from current knowledge about the physical world and that they carefully consider the impact of new sciences and technologies on society. While Campbell’s editorial vision dominated SF for years to come, two other editors made equally lasting contributions to the development of the genre: Anthony Boucher, who co-founded the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1949, and H.L. Gold, who launched Galaxy Science Fiction in 1950. Boucher was a respected mystery writer and translator who published experimental stories of high literary quality, while Gold was a fantasy and comic book writer who excelled at fostering socially satiric SF. Taken together, these three editors shaped SF as a modern genre.
The new story types that proliferated throughout this period underscore the literary and cultural maturity of Golden Age SF. This is particularly evident in the future histories of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. Heinlein’s future history stories (originally published in Astounding between 1930 and 1960, then reprinted in The Past Through Tomorrow in 1967) tell the tale of a determined humanity that automates travel on Earth and then, over the course of the next three millennia, goes on to colonize the stars. Meanwhile, Asimov’s future history sequence (including the stories collected in 1950’s I, Robot, the Robot novels published between 1947 and 1958) predicts that humans’ robotic creations will eventually become their caretakers, fostering the flame of civilization in even the darkest of times. With their emphasis on galaxy-spanning futures populated by sleek space ships and autonomous robots, such Golden Age stories were clear successors to their pulp-era counterparts. However, both Heinlein and Asimov dramatized technoscientific change in ways that spoke to the lived experience of mid-century readers, treating it as something that comes from the collaborative effort of scientists, soldiers, businesspeople, and government officials and that provokes both hope and fear in the individuals living through ages of wonder that are not necessarily of their own making.
While Heinlein and Asimov used future histories to celebrate technocratic ideals, other Golden Age authors used other SF story forms to critically assess the relations of science, technology, and society. The most significant of these was the nuclear-war narrative. In Judith Merril’s 1950 novel Shadow on the Hearth, Walter Miller’s 1960 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach, nuclear war is not – as popular thinking then held – something that can be either limited or won. Instead, even the most minor atomic explosions reverberate through space and time, destroying families, plunging nations into savagery, and wiping out humanity altogether. Meanwhile, the media landscape story – which explored worlds dominated by images of advertising and the popular arts – seemed to be a relative lighthearted mockery of American consumerism. And yet short stories such as Fritz Leiber’s 1949 “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” and Ann Warren Griffith’s 1953 “Captive Audience,” as well as Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s 1953 novel The Space Merchants, turn out to be almost as frightening as their atomic-themed counterparts. As media landscape authors insisted time and time again, the midcentury tendency to protect corporations at the expense of consumers might well lead to the rise of a surveillance state where individuals would be stripped of their civil rights and required to purchase indiscriminately in the name of national security.
Both science and SF developed in new directions in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the most important events influencing the former was the institutional ascendancy of the social sciences. Throughout this period sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists sought to legitimate their work by emphasizing the scientific nature of their subject matter (the quantifiable world of social relations) and methodologies (including the techniques of statistical inquiry and group research). These efforts were so successful – and so popular with students looking for socially relevant classes – that even the most conservative technical institutes made room for social science courses in their curricula. But social scientists were not the only new players in the technoscientific arena. Supported by Cold War legislation that guaranteed educational funds for talented youth, women flooded science, math, and engineering departments in record numbers. When these women found themselves blocked from graduate school and the best professional careers, they took action. Leading scientists joined the National Organization for Women and led the first class-action lawsuits against sexual discrimination in public university hiring practices. Such efforts led to the ratifi- cation of the 1972 Educational Amendment Acts, whose Title IX guaranteed equal pay for men and women working in higher education, while banning sex discrimination in all federally funded educational programs.
The initial challenge to speculative writing in this period came from a group of transatlantic authors and editors associated with what would eventually be called New Wave SF. The New Wave movement coalesced around Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine in Great Britain in the mid-1960s and debuted in the U.S. with the publication of Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology in 1967 and Judith Merril’s England Swings SF anthology in 1968. New Wave authors maintained that the characters, story types, and technocratic ideals of earlier SF were no longer adequate for dramatizing life in the modern world. As such, it was necessary to make SF new by turning from the hard to the soft sciences and exchanging stories about outer space for those focusing on the inner spaces of individuals and their societies. Other challenges came from the scores of new women writers who joined SF during this period. Feminist author-critics Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent, and Samuel R. Delany all readily acknowledged that women had always written speculative fiction. But they also maintained that even the best SF remained trapped in “galactic suburbia”: an imaginary space of dazzling technoscientific extrapolation where, oddly enough, social relations still looked like those of 1950s middle-class America. Accordingly, feminist writers called for their comrades to rethink their aesthetic practices and fulfill the Campbellian ideals of good SF by writing fiction that complicated mainstream notions about the future of scientific, social, and sexual relations.
Although they sometimes differed in their ideas about the relations of modern SF to its generic traditions, both New Wave and feminist SF authors used their chosen genre to explore how humans might grapple with alienation from themselves and their worlds. This is particularly apparent in the natural and urban disaster novels of British New Wave author J.G. Ballard. Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World imagines that humans might greet apocalypse (caused, in this case, by solar radiation that transforms Europe and North America into boiling lagoons) as an opportunity to give up technoscientific mastery and embrace devolution. Meanwhile, his 1973 Crash explores a near future where people come to terms with their media-saturated world by restaging and starring in famous car accidents. Much like Ballard, American author Harlan Ellison used the setting of a radically transformed world to explore the inner space of individuals and their societies. This is particularly apparent in Ellison’s infamous 1967 short story “A Boy and His Dog,” which explores the impact of nuclear war on the nuclear family. In its broad outline, Ellison’s story seems much like the conventional Golden Age nuclear-war narrative, but Ellison takes his critique in surprising new directions, insisting that the instigators of war are not impersonal bureaucrats, but hypocritical fathers whose adherence to Cold War sociopolitical ideals decimates the land and drives their children to rape, murder, and cannibalism.
Feminist SF authors of the 1960s and 1970s tended to be more optimistic about the future than their New Wave counterparts. This is apparent in Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, which uses anthropology, sociology, and psychology to demonstrate how androgynous cultures might distribute childbearing responsibilities and thus power relations more equitably than cultures grounded in sexual division. It is even more evident in Marge Piercy’s 1976 Woman on the Edge of Time and Joanna Russ’s 1975 The Female Man, which illustrate how reproductive technosciences might reform social relations among men and women. In Piercy’s mixed-sex utopia, babies are gestated in mechanical wombs while both men and women use hormone therapy to produce breast milk and enjoy the experience of mothering. Meanwhile, technologically enabled reproduction in Russ’s single-sex utopia liberates women to engage in everything from romance to dueling. Like Bellamy and Gilman before them, feminist SF authors celebrated the possibility of creative social engineering. Drawing inspiration from their politically charged counterparts in the technoscientific professions, however, they insisted that such engineering would be not just a natural side effect of industrial production, but the deliberate achievement of men and women striving to change science and society alike.
New Wave and feminist ideas are still central to SF, but in recent decades the genre has evolved in response to two new technocultural events: the massive expansion of information technologies and the emergence of a transnational economic system supported by these technologies. In the early 1980s home video games and personal computers encouraged users to combine work and leisure in new ways within the privacy of their own homes; the development of the World Wide Web a decade later enabled users to reach out from those homes and forge new kinds of community based on affinity rather than biology or geography. Modern people have been further encouraged to rethink their relations to the larger world by virtue of their position within increasingly global networks of industrial production. The advent of such networks requires people – especially Western people – to reconsider who and what counts within the practice of science and technology. On the one hand, the dominance of industrial production suggests that Western ways of knowing the world are highly successful ones. But gaining access to a global stage allows people to share other technoscientific traditions with one another and even experiment with using those traditions (alone or in tandem with their Western counterparts) as templates for building new and truly more equitable global futures as well.
The premiere narrative form of the information age has no doubt been cyberpunk, the stylish mode of SF storytelling that merges strong interest in cybernetics and biotechnology with generally left-wing or libertarian politics and the do-it-yourself attitude of the early punk rock scene. The term “cyberpunk” was coined by SF author Bruce Bethke in his 1983 story of the same name, but was immediately taken up by editor Gardner Dozois to describe much of the fiction he was publishing in Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine at that time. Firstgeneration cyberpunk fiction, including William Gibson’s celebrated 1984 novel Neuromancer and the short stories collected in Bruce Sterling’s 1986 Mirrorshades anthology, drew energy from the technocultural events of its time, providing SF with new character types and settings. In cyberpunk, creative engineers and faithful robots give way to amoral but usually good-hearted hackers and willful but usually benign artificial intelligences, all of whom struggle to survive and even transcend the conditions of their existence as tools of a transnational economy. Much of this drama takes place in cyberspace, a sphere of artificial or virtual reality where human and machine intelligences can interact with one another and with the flows of information that comprise modern capitalist practice itself. In the 1990s a new generation of SF novels – including Pat Cadigan’s 1991 Synners, Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash, and Melissa Scott’s 1996 Trouble and Her Friends – built upon the cyberpunk tradition by exploring how people (and machines) who recognize the value of raced and gendered bodies within the abstract world of computation might exchange the old dream of transcendence for the new one of material engagement, thereby transforming bad corporate futures into new and more egalitarian ones.
The technoscientific and social ideals endemic to cyberpunk have inspired the development of other SF sub-genres. The artificial intelligences of cyberpunk are predicated on what computer scientist and SF author Vernor Vinge has described as the technological singularity: a near-future moment when computational power enables the creation of superhumanly intelligent machines that change the world in ways that pre-singularity humans cannot even begin to imagine. This has not stopped Vinge trying to imagine such worlds in the 1981 novella True Names and the 1984 and 1986 novels The Peace War and Marooned in Real Time, all of which are told from the perspective of pre-singularity humans who survive the transition to a post-singularity society. Other notable books to explore this theme include Cory Doctorow’s 1996 Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Charles Stross’s 2005 Accelerando. Still other SF authors have seized upon the tension between cybernetic and biological enhancement, driving cyberpunk to imagine startling new “wet” futures. Key works in this vein include Kathleen Ann Goonan’s 1994–2000 Nanotech Quartet, Paul Di Filippo’s 1996 Ribofunk, and Margaret Atwood’s 2003 Oryx and Crake. Although these works are very different in tone (Goonan’s books are cautiously utopic, Atwood’s novel is largely dystopic, and Di Filippo makes a playful end run around the whole issue), all three authors are, like their post-singularity counterparts, profoundly interested in the fate of human values, emotions, and aesthetic productions in a posthuman world.
The development of global socioeconomic networks has drawn attention to the fact that SF is no longer the exclusive province of white, Western people. Indeed, it turns out that this has never been the case. Over the course of the twentieth century that other great industrial nation, the Soviet Union, developed an SF tradition parallel to its anglophone counterpart. As early as 1970 Englishspeaking readers could learn about that tradition in Isaac Asimov’s Soviet Science Fiction anthology; today, new anthologies such as Alexander Levitsky’s 2008 Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Science Fiction and Fantasy attest to the continued evolution of Russian SF. The SF community has also recently become aware of an alternate speculative fiction within the transatlantic region itself: Afrofuturism. Early Afrofuturist works include Edward Johnson’s 1904 utopia Light Ahead for the Negro, W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1920 disaster story “The Comet,” and George Schuyler’s 1936–38 serialized future war stories Black Internationale and Black Empire. Since the 1960s Afrodiasporic authors including Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, and Minister Faust have become luminaries within the SF community; stories by these and other notable Afrofuturists are collected in Sherree R. Tepper’s 2000 and 2004 Dark Matter anthologies and Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan’s 2004 So Long Been Dreaming: postcolonial science fiction and fantasy collection.
SF has flourished in countries as diverse as China, Japan, and Brazil since the late nineteenth century as well. Perhaps not surprisingly, authors from these countries began writing speculative fiction at the same time that merchants began using industrial technologies. The earliest of these publications include Huang Jiang Diao Sou’s 1904 “Lunar Colony,” Oshikawa Shunro’s 1900 Undersea Warship, and Joachim Felício dos Santos’ 1868–72 Pages from the History of Brazil Written in the Year 2000. Anglo-American readers can learn about contemporary Chinese, Japanese, and Latin American SF in Dingbo Wu and Patrick D. Murphy’s 1989 Science Fiction from China, Gene van Troyer and Grania Davis’s 2007 Speculative Japan: outstanding tales of Japanese science fiction and fantasy, and Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilan’s 2003 Cosmos Latinos: an anthology of science fiction from latin America and Spain. Like their Russian and Afrodiasporic counterparts, Chinese, Japanese, and Brazilian SF authors have both revised Western genre conventions and developed new ones in light of their own fantastic literary traditions to better dramatize the processes of industrialization and globalization in their own societies. Taken together, these speculative writing traditions demonstrate that SF is the literature not just of engineers, but of all people living in the modern world.
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