Oct 29, 2009

Amazing Screw-on Head - Mike Mignola

This 20 minute pilot from the creative genius of Mike Mignola is one of my favorite animated features ever. The title explains a great deal about the hero, a sentient constuct (or perhaps sentience transported into a construct?) who can screw it's head into any number of construct bodies, from anthro to arachno-morphic combinations. He's as steampunk a hero as I've ever seen, with the exception of the heroine of Alchemy of Stone.

As my final post of scary steampunk for the month of October (Boneshaker is too good to skim-read - I'm reading it like I sip fine wine, so it will have to be a post-Halloween creepy steampunk entry), it contains as many monsters as Soulless and Perdido combined, with a Lovecraftian frog-god near the end to boot. No surprise, as Mignola loves his monsters. There are werewolves, vampires, zombies, relatives of Cthulu, and monkeys with machine guns. Gotta love a primate packing heat.

More than monsters abound: there is humor as well. David Hyde Pierce voicing the villanous Emperor Zombie gets all the best lines, but Paul Giamatti's camped up tribute to Adam West-style-heroic voice work rivals Pierce for peformances laced with irony. While the subject matter is ostensibly dark and violent, the tone of Amazing Screw-on Head is light-hearted, paying tribute to the whimsy of the original texts steampunk recycles. While it isn't an across-the-board part of the aesthetic, steampunk material is well-suited to a whimsical approach. Just consider that two of the creepy entries I've listed this month are comedies. Literary steampunk, at the very least, doesn't have to take itself too seriously, it would seem.

Consider the YouTube link my Halloween treat to you all who come by this All Hallows' Eve weekend - maybe I'll try to include a steampunk saint next year just to stay on holiday.

Oct 23, 2009

The Steampunk Scholar's Schedule at Steamcon

For those who will be there, here are the date and times of my presentations and panels:

Captain Nemo as the original steampunk
In the updated, post-colonial English translations of The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne’s anti-hero Captain Nemo is revealed to be the antithesis of the Caucasian pop-culture portrayal made famous by James Mason and most recently continued by Patrick Stewart and Michael Caine: an Indian prince whose real name is Dakkar, leader of the Sepoy rebellion against colonial rule in 1857. It is this Nemo, Verne’s original character, who embodies the essence of the Steampunk aesthetic of the instability of identity through his repeated death-and-rebirth cycle in both novels. Mixing one part recursive fantasy, one part historical criticism, and one part textual analysis, this paper will demonstrate how Captain Nemo is representative of two iconic steampunk identities, as well as suggesting a third possibility for the future of steampunk.  
Friday, 4:00-5:00 pm, in the Seattle Room.

Meet Paul Guinan
An Interview & Autograph Session with Artist GOH Paul Guinan.
Saturday 11:00am - 1:00pm in the Seattle Room

Dungeons and Dickens: How to Steampunk your RPG
What happens when a Game Master mixes two of his favorite writers into one gaming world, and those writers are J.R.R. Tolkien and Jules Verne? You get Steam Lords, the steampunked Middle-Earth campaign Mike Perschon and his gaming group embarked upon over a year ago with thoroughly enjoyable results. Come find out how to apply the brass goggles, airships, and clockwork automatons to your roleplaying campaign, through a discussion of online resources, a brief review of some of the steampunk RPGs, and a look at the best miniatures for steampunk campaigns.
Saturday 3:00pm - 4:00pm in the Seattle  

Steam Wars: Steampunk aesthetic meets Space Opera
While steampunk continues to defy attempts at definition, a coherent aesthetic of steampunk artworks has begun to emerge. By establishing a link between space opera and steampunk, and then comparing and contrasting the well-known cultural icons of Star Wars and their steampunk counterparts, defining features of the steampunk aesthetic may be derived. A close reading of individual artworks to identify these defining features as represented by brass goggles, exposed technology, resistance of Empire, and egalitarian treatment of steampunk heroines, reveals why Star Wars, more than any other science fiction (or pop culture) narrative has been successfully retrofitted with the steampunk aesthetic.
Sunday 9:00-10:00 am in the Olympia Room

Come by and say hi!    


Oct 17, 2009

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

Continuing my October series of Scary Steampunk, I finally get a chance (translation: force myself despite stacks of marking) to download my thoughts on China Miéville's steampunk fantasy, Perdido Street Station.

I had taken an attempt at Perdido last year, right after finishing my M.A., but as was the case with attempting Pynchon's Against the Day, my brain just wasn't ready for anything but pure narcotic reading. When I discovered that Perdido had been released in audiobook and was read by one of my favorite narrators, John Lee, I decided to take another shot.

I'm exceedingly glad I did. Miéville's writing is beautiful filth: from the grime-infested descriptions of New Crobuzon, a city somewhere between Doré's visual renderings of London and the cityscape of Dark City and City of Lost Children, to both familiar vulgarities as well as unfamiliar profanities like "Godspit!" and "Jabber's arse!" Like Dickens, Miéville is interested in the "least of these," the people who do not sit in the places of the high and mighty: people like the brilliant but iconoclastic alchemical thaumaturgist, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, whose interest is in Crisis energy. While Miéville's world is easily placed under the steampunk umbrella, his world is highly original - where lesser writers are still playing with steam or aether, Miéville imagines a self-perpetuating energy source in Crisis theory.

Some of his imaginings are simply outrageous, such as the handlingers, and to some degree the Cactus people, but on the whole the feverdream world he invites his readers into is somehow believable enough to cohere, nearly operating on its own Crisis energy at times. His world building echoes Clive Barker's Four Dominions in Imajica, as does the grit and desperation of the characters. Where Miéville is, in my own mind, inferior to Barker though, is that he can't let go of the grit. His world is unrelentingly dismal, which made for a tiring read at points. The reader feels at points as bludgeoned as the protagonists, who endure great trials before coming to the end of their adventures.

But I digress. This is supposed to be an investigation of how Perdido is steampunk, or what it offers to the steampunk aesthetic. To this end, I must ask those readers who have not yet experienced Perdido to go and do so, unless they don't mind some spoilers. To the rest, I invite your commentary and discussion.

While Miéville is an eloquent wordsmith, the motivating plotline of Perdido is effectively a steampunked Aliens, Blade II, Mimic, or perhaps all three. There are monsters on the loose who are nearly impossible to stop, and that is what our heroes must do. To understand the steampunk aesthetic would mean to compare Perdido closely with these three films and identify the differences of how the Slake Moths are unleashed (through the work of Perdido's somewhat mad scientist, Isaac Grimnebulin), and then how they are dealt with (weapons, devices, allies such as the Construct Council). The reason this adventure storyline doesn't seem conventional is that Miéville is not only adept at wordsmithing, but is also a great writer of character. Every character in Perdido is richly rendered, with nuances of personality both good and bad. Any author who can make his readers connect with a hero who is severely flawed and sexually attracted to a woman with the head of a beetle must be commended at some level. While there are those who never connect with this (and many critics on Amazon do not), the overwhelming acclaim for Perdido at both a critical and popular level shows that Miéville largely succeeded. In the case of this book, you can believe the hype.

Nevertheless, for all its highbrow dystopic elements, complex characterization and ambivalent moral schema, Perdido is an adventure story: a monster hunt. The Slake Moths are appropriate monstrosities for a steampunk novel, since steampunk is pastiche patchwork of historical aesthetics. The Slake Moths are amalgams of the beasties in the aforementioned films, playing upon the indestructibility and otherness of Giger's Alien, the flight and dreamlike ability to lure prey of Mimic, and the sewer chases of Blade II. What really drove this home for me was the introduction of a party of adventurers who are hired to aid the heroes in their pursuit of the monsters:
"There were three of them. They were immediately and absolutely recognizable as adventurers; rogues who wandered the Ragamoll and the Cymek and Fellid and probably the whole of Bas-Lag. They were hardy and dangerous, lawless, stribbed of allegiance or morality, living off their wits, stealing and ikilling, hiring themselves out to whoever and whatever cam. They were inspired by dubious virtues. A few performed useful services: research, cartography, and the like. Most were nothing but tomb raiders. They were scum who died violent deahts, hanging on to a certain cachet among the impressionable through their undeniable bravery and their occasionally impressive exploits." (429)

I'm presenting on steampunk tabletop RPGs at Steam Con next week, and I couldn't help but think of the standard Dungeons and Dragons party when I read this description. And it occured to me that these are steampunked D&D heroes (some might say that's all Planescape is, but that's another discussion). If a story has characters who resemble this sort of hero, it's an adventure tale. In this case, it's a very intelligent one. One that explores the themes of otherness, shame, community, belonging, transformation, and how these all relate to moments of crisis.

It's because of these themes that I find the ending unsatisfying. Perhaps I'm reading my own sensibilities into the text, but there came a point when I felt Miéville cheated his readers of the logical conclusion to Perdido. Again, abandon all hope of avoiding spoilers, ye who enter here. At the ending, Yagharek should have flown. Since Miéville had barred his path to acceptance into the flawed faux-family the Garuda had formed with Isaac and Derkhan, the only thing left really, was to fly. The idea behind Crisis energy had permeated the story. The level of contrivance and coincidence was quite high - the web of circumstances showed a sort of Prime Mover behind the events. The text seems to be implying its own hidden crisis engine beneath the surface. There are many occasions when the protagonist of Isaac leaps, and the net appears. I was rather convinced that in the end, it would be demonstrated that crisis energy did not need an engine to tap into it. Like Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, I'd argue that China Miéville has refused the logical end-result of his metaphysical conceit - Stephenson can't really commit to his Baal-shem in Snow Crash, and Mieville abandons his crisis energy. Maybe I was just hoping for a happier ending, but Lin could have been restored. Yagharek could have flown. But it seems that Miéville was committed to following through with one of the other major threads/themes of Perdido, which echoes the words of Sweeney Todd in Sondheim's musical:
"There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit
and it goes by the name of [Bas-Lag]."

In this, Perdido is a fantasy version of the mise-en-scene of The Difference Engine: utterly distopic. From that perspective, the novel does end satisfactorily. Perhaps I just feel bad for Yagharek, seeking acceptance and grace in a world whose author will not permit it.

Oct 12, 2009

Steampunk Audiobooks

I abide by a very dense schedule. It used to be busy, but now it's just packed very tightly. Part of packing one's schedule tightly (some call this time management, but given the attitude towards time in steampunk, I'd like to avoid giving the impression I can manage an abstraction), if one is inclined towards reading voraciously as I am, is the use of audiobooks.

I first started using audiobooks to augment my literary intake the semester I took Science Fiction and Children's Literature at the University of Alberta. Most of the books were available at audible.com, so I signed up for a membership. It's been my way of staying ahead with my reading ever since. Most often, I listen to the audio on my cycling/bus commute, and then make notes in my hardcopy of the book in the evening. Earlier this year, I lamented the scanty choices a steampunk scholar has in audiobooks. In the past two months, I've seen a marked change in that situation. Here are a list of steampunk audiobooks available through Audible, as well as a link to a podcast I've listened to a few episodes of which may interest my visitors.

Steampunk at Audible.com:

Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon: Not including the classics that inspired steampunk, this was the first steampunk-related-book I could find at Audible a year ago. The reader is Dick Hill, and while he's the right man for the job of delivering the complex ironic tone of Pynchon's epic monstrosity, many listeners reviewing the audio version have missed these nuances entirely, thinking him an over-actor. Hill is a master of accents, bring to life the multicultural cast of Against the Day. At over 53 hours, it's an investment of time, but clearly demonstrates the value of a membership with Audible, since it's still only 1 credit (I get 2 credits a month under Audible's platinum plan for 22.95 USD)!

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells: Classics are easy to come by in audiobook, but a lot of classic audiobooks are just cheap recordings by amateurs who like the fact they don't have to pay copyright for public domain works. What's nice about sites like Audible.com is that you have the option to preview the narrator. As I stated, I really liked Dick Hill's reading of Against the Day, but there are a number of unabridged audioversions of The Time Machine, so your mileage may vary. 

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: The other trouble with classics in audiobook is that if they're in translation, odds are its an old one, since those versions are the ones in the public domain. In the case of Verne's works, that means the translation is likely garbage, since most of the early English translations were plagued by rush-jobs or censorship. This particular version is one of those bad translations, but given the choice of unabridged audio versions of 20,000 Leagues, this one struck me as the best - Frederick Davidson, the actual narrator (part of the website states that it's Alfred Molina). I'm personally looking forward to an audioversion of Walter James Miller's translation myself, read by someone with a French accent.

Mainspring by Jay Lake: I've wondered several times if I would have liked Mainspring better if I hadn't listened to it. William Dufris is a little too breathy, seemingly trying too hard to convey how awesome Lake's secondary world is, rather than letting the text to speak for itself. I'd recommend reading over listening, but then again, I like Dick Hill.

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson: Jennifer Wiltsie's narration adds a wonderful layer to Stephenson's already wonderful text, and each chapter break is heralded by some appropriate classical music, which adds both to flavor and comprehension. I can recommend this audiobook without reservation.

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville: I had taken a previous stab at reading Perdido and couldn't get into it, but when I saw the audio version read by John Lee show up on Audible earlier this summer, I thought I'd give it another shot. Even at 2 credits (which seems a ridiculous price to pay for an audiobook half the length of Pynchon's Against the Day) this is still an audiobook worth having. I've listened to John Lee read Orhan Pamuk's Snow, and while I didn't really love the book, I loved Lee's narration. He has a great voice, and he does a fantastic job with Perdido. In my reading so far, I think Perdido should be considered steampunk canon, so it's required for any serious steampunk scholar.

Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel: Some Canadian steampunk for your collection. I haven't finished wending my way through Airborn, book one of Oppel's high-flying series, but I needed another audiobook for my commute, and Skybreaker is the only book of the series available in Canada (feel the irony - it's as bad as the time I went to download Great White North by Bob and Doug MacKenzie on Itunes and was informed they couldn't sell that to my geographic location). It's not a huge problem though, as readers can come into this series anywhere without feeling disoriented, so if you have to start with Skybreaker, you'll be all right. Given the amazing full-cast reading (not a dramatization, but multiple readers), it would be worth jumping in mid-stream regardless. Oppel's a lot of fun if you're looking for a straightforward, high flying adventure. Recommended for car trips. US readers can grab Airborn here at Audible. Canadians should write their Member of Parliament and complain.
Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel: The same full-cast approach as the first two books, so unless Oppel trips at the finish line with book three of this series, it's bound to be great! 

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld: This audiobook is as gorgeous as the hardcover print edition. Alan Cumming (Nightcrawler from the X-men movies) does a wonderful job of narration, and the opening theme music sets the mood for the entire piece. At 8 hours, it's an easy listen, and Westerfeld's pacing and enjoyable characters are a delight - it made my commute on the bus blur by!

The Windup Girl by Scott Bacigalupi It's up for a stack of awards, and deservedly so. This was my best read of 2009, and I consumed most of it via audiobook. While Jonathan Davis will likely prove too deadpan a narrator for most, I really enjoyed his even-tempered vocalizing. He was great to listen to for Don DeLilllo's Cosmopolis, and I found myself making comparisons between the novels as a result. This book is highly, highly recommended.

The Prestige by Christopher Priest: One more I haven't read, but I saw the movie (hangs head in shame)! So much steampunk, so little time. I can recommend this on the basis of the narrator once again. Simon Vance is one of the best narrators in audiobooks.

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist: This is an abridgment of volumes 1 & 2, which is a little disappointing, but on the plus side, unlike 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this one is really read by Alfred Molina. I recommend listening to the audiobook if you need some tight pacing, but if you need full explanation, then combine the audiobook with the hard-copies. That's what I did, listening to the audiobook at a breakneck pace (by way of comparison to reading), and then re-reading and skimming over passages in the hard copies. Made for a great experience of this artfully written, by-the-numbers adventure story. While the tone is very literate, don't expect this book to change your world. It's the sort of escapism guys like Michael Chabon is always championing. The narrator's quite good, but I should warn the prudish to steer clear of this one, which gets a bit naughty in a Victorian way many times. You can also get the unabridged version of The Dark Volume as well.

Larklight by Philip Reeve: Narrator Greg Steinbruner is not a favorite of mine, and the editor left great looming gaps in the audio, ostensibly for young listeners to absorb the text. For an adult, it's maddening, and I've been forced to listen to it at double speed on my iPod. Further, Steinbrunner is an adult, and the first-person narrator of Larklight is a young boy - listening to Oppel's Skybreaker demonstrates the efficacy of using young voice talent to read young personas. Steinbruner sounds like an adult playing a kid, and mostly comes off petulant. Finally, the audiobook for Larklight should be seen only as accompaniment for the book, which features great illustrations that contribute greatly to the narrative. Sequels Starcross and Mothstorm are also available.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman: Whether they're steampunk or not is up for debate I'm sure, but these full cast dramatizations (and yet not abridged!) audiobooks of Pullman's His Dark Materials are among my favorite audiobooks of all time, with Pullman himself providing very able narration. If you enjoyed the books, these audio versions are a great way to revisit the adventures of Lyra and Pan.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest: I'm going to give this book a second run by audiobook, because Kate Reading, one of my favorite narrators is reading the parts from Briar's point-of-view, and Wil Wheaton reads Ezekiel's parts. Sometimes books are just meant to be read out loud (Gail Carriger's Soulless being an excellent example). In addition, given the number of awards this book has gone up for this year (Nebula, Locus), I'm thinking I need to pay closer attention in my second read, to see if I missed something the first time around.

The Affinity Bridge by George Mann: I wouldn't recommend the actual book of this audiobook, and lesser still it's amateur-hour audio version, which is plagued by poor fidelity and a terrible narrator. This is one of the worst audiobooks I've ever listened to, and one of my least favorite steampunk books to boot. Two thumbs way, way down.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion: A steampunk novel-of-ideas with Shakespeare's Tempest as its foundation - sounds like it would be great, and if postmodern fiction is your cup-of-tea, and you can stomach William Dufris' adenoidal narration, I highly recommend it. Dufris nearly ruined my listening of Mainspring, until I adjusted my brain to get over how much I dislike his voice. In some ways, he does suit the voice of the narrator, but there's only so much of his nasal whining I can take. Make sure and check out the preview first. 

Other Steampunk Audio sources

There are some wonderful odds and ends to grab for FREE as well, and SFF Audio has links to the steampunk classic "Lord Kelvin's Machine" by James P. Blaylock, "The Shattered Teacup" by George Mann (which comes after the Affinity Bridge), and a link to the now defunct Steampod.org, a podcast devoted solely to original steampunk short stories.I've only listened to "Cold Duty" by Dan Sawyer, but aside from the preamble by the editor-in-chief of Steampod, I found it to be well-written and narrated. I'm also interested in The Gearheart, a serialized steampunk tale, which I discovered putting this posting together, and is also available as a podcast through iTunes. Do a steampunk search in iTunes and you'll find Natania Barron's Aldersgate series in podcast, as well as the aforementioned Steampod. You can likely find a number of these books on iTunes as well, but you'll pay more money to get them than if you sign up at Audible. And they're not even paying me to say that!

For those interested in history relating to steampunk (or for those who hang out with steampunks who take their anachronism as seriously as a historical reenactor), I highly recommend Fire and Steam: A New History of the Railways in Britain and The Age of Victoria from the award winning BBC series This Sceptered Isle. I used both to prepare for presentations at Steam Powered in the fall of 2008, and they made me sound more knowledgable than I actually am.

Word is that Gail Carriger's Soulless is receiving an audio treatment even as I write this, and given the appearance of Westerfield's Leviathan on this list, I think the next year will see a large number of steampunk audiobooks. I welcome any additions to this list by way of comment, as I'm as eager to hear about more steampunk audiobooks as I am to tell about them.

Oct 7, 2009

Soulless by Gail Carriger

It's October, the month for ghosts, goblins, and ghosts and goblins with goggles. So this month, I'll be dealing with scary, spooky, and in the case of today's topic, somewhat satirical steampunk.

I've done a proper review of Gail Carriger's Soulless for the current issue of Exhibition Hall, but as I decided earlier this year, I'm not reviewing books here: I'm analyzing them for how they contribute to the steampunk aesthetic. When Carriger sent me an advance copy of her novel, she apologized for the lack of steampunk, by which I believe she meant steam-tech, as Soulless stands within the aesthetic boundaries I've been drawing up here at Steampunk Scholar. I'm not of the opinion that anachronistic brass Babbage Engines a steampunk story make. I often feel like I'm beating the proverbial dead horse when I say this, but if that's all steampunk amounts to, someone needs to phone up Steamcon and tell them to un-invite Tim Powers: he's out of the club.

Speaking of Steamcon, Steamcon Vice Chair Diana Vick recently defined steampunk in an interview with Tor.com as "altered history Victorian fantasy." While there's been some animated debate about the Victorian side of steampunk at Steam Empire, we might construe Victorian as less a geographical space and more as a a temporal aesthetic marker, spanning the globe. But let's save that conversation for another day, shall we? For now, let's stick with altered history, with the nineteenth century as an ontological foundation, and instead of fantasy (which limits our scope in the same way choosing SF does) let's say "speculative narrative." In this respect, Soulless fits the steampunk mold (or in Carriger's case, corset or bustle) very nicely.

Carriger's own description of Soulless is an "urbane fantasy," an alternate history of Victorian England where the monsters have come out of the closet as the alternative lifestyles. Werewolves and vampires blend in with humans on the streets and in the government of London. This isn't an entirely new concept - Kim Newman did as much when he wrote Anno Dracula. Think Underworld meets Emma, with Mr. Knightley replaced by a sexy rogue of a werewolf. And before you go dismissing Soulless as a rip-off of the currently hot Austen-meets-zombies books, think again. Firstly, I can state without reservation that Carriger had this concept wrapped up before those books came out. Second, those books are hacked up versions of Austen with Zombies crow-barred into the narrative. Carriger is 100% original.

I like having Soulless as an addition to my steampunk reading list, since it is the first ostensibly steampunk novel I've read that pays homage to the comedy of manners made famous by Jane Austen, with Molly Brown's short story "The Selene Gardening Society" being the only other example I can think of. There are certainly steampunk characters who act "properly," but none who take manners to the extreme Alexia Tarabotti does. Carriger's heroine is often more concerned with civility than safety, with hilarious results:
"This was the nineteenth century, after all, and one simply did not attack unannounced and uninvited!" (18)
"Can you imagine...the detrimental effect on your marriage prospects, to be found unchaperoned in a library with a dead vampire!" (37)
"It simply would not do to tell her mama she was paying a late-night call on a vampire hive." (81)
"The words being bandied about were getting dangerously ruse. So rude, in fact, that unless she missed her guess, actions would soon be required." (96)
 And one of my favorites:
Highland werewolves had a reputation for doing atrocious and highly unwarranted things, like wearing smoking jackets to the dinner table." (132)
There are other equally hilarious examples, but to go on would be to steal some of Carriger's thunder. The smoking jacket reference is one of many wonderfully accurate and detailed descriptions of fashion, which itself has become a major aspect of steampunk culture off the page. I can imagine some steampunk fans responding negatively to an insinuation that the comedy of manners belongs in steampunk. However, if part of steampunk is to imitate, make overtures to, or incorporate some element of the Victorian era, then Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters need to be adopted as the grandmothers (or at the very least, great aunts) in the same way Verne and Wells are invoked as the grandfathers of steampunk. I'm not saying I think The Difference Engine needed an Elizabeth Bennet. I'm just saying if we admit Dickensian influences on steampunk, then let us be egalatarian enough to permit the ladies as well.

At the very least, Carriger is one of the few steampunk novelists who is an unabashed fan of steampunk. In a culture where Robert Smith of Abney Park is trying to decide if the band is really dieselpunk, when steampunk "giants" like Tim Powers can't understand how their own books are considered steampunk, and Phil Foglio refuses the tag steampunk for the far more obfuscating "gaslamp fantasy", Carriger is a refreshing change - someone who doesn't mind having her Victorian fantasy labeled steampunk. Further, she's one of the few who seem to having so much fun doing it. After all, what can be more steampunk than a female heroine in some state of passionate agitation reminding her lover that, "This has got to stop...we are in danger, remember? You know, ruination and tragedy? Calamity just beyond that door...Any moment now, evil scientists may come charging in."

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