Permafrost Is a Clever, Character-Based Time Travel Thriller

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Alastair Reynolds (Revelation Space) is an innovative master of what’s frequently—but imprecisely in his case—referred to as “hard sci-fi.” I see the term as imprecise only in that it often implies a reliance on science to the point that character and humanity are overshadowed. Reynolds consistently excels at striking a balance between complex science and interestingly nuanced characters. Sometimes the people at the heart of his stories are denizens of a distant future, or, as in his new novella, the time travel thriller Permafrost, a much nearer one: it opens in the year 2080, by which time an environmental catastrophe will have come and gone, with any and all hope for the future lying in the past.

During the environmental catastrophe known colloquially as “The Scouring,” a global insect die-off that left plants unpollinated and most of the world’s soil infertile. What followed was a dystopian hellscape of starvation and forced euthanization. Even giving birth to a child comes to be seen as an act of monstrous cruelty, given the guarantee it will suffer. As the novella begins, we’re down to what could well be the last generation of humans on Earth—but not everyone is ready to give up.

The Permafrost Retrocausal Experiment exists as a flotilla of ships carrying out a bold, dangerous plan to save the future by returning to the past. Making use of a loophole in causality that allows for small bundles of particles to travel back in time, the team is able to implant in certain pre-Scouring humans tiny interfaces that allow for them to be remote-controlled from the future via a quasi-quantum-mechanical pairing. The goal is to gather and preserve incredibly hardy seed variants that could be used to restore Earth’s ability to grow food.

It’s a novel approach to time travel, but there’s more to the story than the clever set-up: one of the members of the project team is 70-something schoolteacher Valentina Lidova, whose scientist mother came up with the method of interacting with the past, having died long before her ideas came to fruition. Valentina finds herself linked with Tatiana Dinova, a hospital patient without much of a future. Though the connection is meant to be one-way, the two women are able to interact, essentially sharing a body while Valentina navigates the foreign past and the unique challenges that lay before them, which include project members from months into Valentina’s own future who know things that she doesn’t and who, as a result, have conflicting agendas.

One of the primary reasons for Reynolds’ success (at least among people who are me) is his finesse in telling stories of real people caught in situations laden with hard sci-fi trappings. His works are generally character-driven narratives set in worlds where science (real or speculative) matters. Permafrost captures that quality in a compact form. The conception of time outlined here posits that, like the rest of the universe, it wants to exist at the lowest-energy level, and is constantly moving toward that ground state. Therefore, minor alterations to the flow of time are possible, but time itself resists anything too dramatic or paradoxical. Thus, the Permafrost team’s the goal is to find a solution to the crisis that doesn’t significantly impact decades of history.

Aside from that complication, Reynolds posits that problem solving via time travel would make any solution a moving target—the “present” of 2080 is in flux as our team of time travelers continually redefines its goals. There’s also a ticking clock element in play: the race to collect the seeds in the past runs parallel to a “present” in which Valentina fights to maintain her connection to Tatiana and figure out who’s working to sabotage the experiment and why.

The time travel action would, by itself, make for a fun and engaging story. Reynolds does one better by grounding Permafrost in the lives and experiences of Valentina and Tatiana, two women with similar names who would be very different even if they didn’t come from very different times. The work of Valentina, and that of her mother before her, is incredibly consequential, while Tatiana is chosen precisely because her life can be hijacked without any real consequences to history. Because of their connection, we’re privy to their developing relationship and burgeoning sense of trust—to the flowering of a bond between two women that becomes, quite literally, humanity’s only hope.

Permafrost is available now.

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This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Doctorow’s Dystopian Visions, an Assassin on the Run, and Space Marines Unstuck in Time

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Soulkeeper, by David Dalglish
Dalglish launches a new series set in a world where religion has declared monsters—zombies, spider-wolves, and worse—to be nothing but myth. Devin Eveson is a Soulkeeper, traveling from village to village to preach the scripture and heal the afflicted. But then the black water comes, washing over the world and bringing with it death, destruction—and the return of those mythic monsters, giving the lie to the scripture Devin has devoted his life to spreading. These reemergent creatures are furious that humankind has forgotten them and their creators, known as the five dragons, and the whole world soon erupts into madness and terror. When Soulkeepers start turning up dead, transformed into horrifying sculptures, Devin realizes he must stray from his peaceful path and learn to how to be a monster slayer.

Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow’s latest takes the form of four sharp-edged novellas, each with a five-minutes-into-the-dystopian-future premise more provocative than the last. In Unauthorized Bread, a refugee in a rigorously controlled “smart apartment” runs afoul of algorithmic control when she figures out how to hack her appliances to make food without used ingredients from “approved” corporate manufacturers. In Model Minority, an alien superhero known as the American Eagle struggles with serving as the symbol of justice for a country that seems to have lost its way. The title story, Radicalized, sees an average couple turn terrorist after one of them is denied life-saving insurance coverage and the other falls in with an underground internet community filled with men angry at the healthcare status quo. And in The Masque of the Red Death, doomsday prepper Martin has prepared everything he needs to ride out the apocalypse, but he failed to anticipate that the biggest threat to the future of humanity might be himself.

The Perfect Assassin, by K. A. Doore
This rich epic fantasy debut is inspired by the mythologies of Egypt and the cultures of sub-Saharan Africa. Nineteen-year old Amastan Basbowen has spent most of his life training in the family business of assassination in order to help defend his home city of Ghadid. When his vocation is outlawed, however, he must contemplate a return to the more staid career of historian. His family is targeted by the corrupt Drum Chiefs who run the city, framed for a series of assassinations where the bodies were hidden away, leaving the tortured souls of the murdered to remain as jaani, unquiet spirits who risk eventually devolving into violent, demonic shades. Amastan must work to clear his family’s name and save the city before an army of restless spirits destroys everything.

The Deepest Blue: Tales of Renthia, by Sarah Beth Durst
Durst latest novel to take place in the world of Renthia, the setting for The Queen of Blood and its sequels, is a standalone spinoff that tells the story of the people of the islands of Belene, who face a difficult and uncertain existence thanks to the evil water spirits makes that threaten their homeland. On the eve of her wedding, oyster-diver Mayara averts disaster when, after the spirits send a storm against the islanders, she reveals she has the power to control them. She is arrested as a witch and sent to an island filled with other outcast women—and a horde of hungry spirits. The women must compete against one another using only their magic and their wits, with the last ones standing designated heirs to the queen—but mere survival may cost them everything.

Black Moon: The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin, Vol. Five, by Seabury Quinn
Night Shade Books concludes its ambitious project to reprint the entire catalogue of one of the forgotten heroes of the pulp era, investigator Jules de Grandin, who often found himself taking on threats both mysterious and supernatural. Author Seabury Quinn, a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, was incredibly prolific, but had been almost lost to time—though this five-volume series, which reproduces the original tales in chronological order and with new introductions, has gone a long way toward changing that. This hefty final volume includes all of Quinn’s de Grandin stories penned between 1938 and 1951.

The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley
The latest novel from Hugo-winner Kameron Hurley is both her most trope-y and traditional, and as fiery and in-your-face as her incendiary last, The Stars Are Legion, which was itself a brutal reimagining of ideas of an all-female society and the worldship into a barely controlled attack on the systems that have exploited women’s bodies and identities for thousands of years. Her targets this time are corporations, unbridled capitalism, and the military industrial complex that supports them, and her tools are the stuff of classic SF adventures: time travel, advanced weaponry, and battle-hardened boots-on-the-ground grunts. Young recruit Dietz was born a non-citizen, forced to grow up without access to not just the wonders of a future world, but without access to the essentials: enough food, adequate medical care, a sense of security. Her only chance to beat the system is to sign up to fight for the corporate cause—a battle against Mars in which soldiers are transformed into light waves and zapped across space and directly into the line of fire. But no sooner than she has completed training, Dietz’s missions begin to go sideways, as her trips with the so-called Light Brigade seem to be sending her pinging back and forth on the timeline of a war that seems to promise humanity’s end. This is military science fiction, Kameron Hurley style—a story about the life of an infantry grunt and the corporate future of warfare, with shades of Robert Heinlein and Joe Haldeman, and a touch of the bizarre that could only come from the author of God’s War.

Luna: Moon Rising, by Ian McDonald
The third volume of Ian McDonald’s sprawling mob epic on the moon brings to a close a story that began in 2015’s Luna: New Moon and continued in 2017’s Luna: Wolf Moon, and you might want to revisit those volumes before diving into the climactic installment, because the author doesn’t even pause for breath as he rejoins a series of complex schemes already in progress. In the near future, the moon is controlled by five feuding families who each seek a stranglehold on the satellite’s vital energy resources. Much of the drama moves into the courtroom in this installment, as two members of the powerful Cortas family air their differences at a trial with huge consequences that will shape the course of Luna’s future: will a massive terraforming project be implemented?  Will the Moon become a socialist paradise, where settlers are given guaranteed incomes? With a cheeky sense of humor and an eye for political intrigue, McDonald wraps up an ambitious trilogy in fine style—though again, if you haven’t already read the first two volumes, we must reiterate: don’t start here.

The Witch’s Kind, by Louisa Morgan
Witches are often metaphors for women distrusted by society, and Morgan (A Secret History of Witches) uses that tension to great effect in this World War II-era family story. Barrie Anne and her aunt Charlotte live alone in a small Pacific Northwest town that views them with suspicion, and when they take in an abandoned baby who appears to share their supernatural powers, they feel a fierce need to protect the child. Then Barrie Anne’s abusive husband shows up, and the women must determine the lengths they’re willing to go to for autonomy and self-determination.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea: Stories, by Sarah Pinsker
Anyone who pays attentions to the ballots for various high-profile science fiction and fantasy awards will recognize the name Sarah Pinsker; her stories have recently been nominated for (or won) the Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and Hugo awards, among others. Naturally, then, the publication of her first collection is something of an event, particularly coming as it does from Small Beer Press, which has provided a home for some of the best emerging authors to hit the genre scene in recent years (among them Andy Duncan, Abbey Mei Otis, and Sofia Samatar). The 13 stories collected here vary in length, from the almost-micro-fiction of “The Sewell Home for the Temporarily Displaced,” to the novella-length And Then There Were (n-1), a nominee for both the Hugo and Nebula last year that posits what might happen if an author (Sarah Pinsker) attended a convention for her alternate selves from alternate dimensions, and then one of them started murdering the others. The collection is worth the cover price for that story alone, to be honest; that there are a dozen others, including the moving “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,” which deals with a woman’s grief at the loss she feels after her husband’s stroke leaves him unable to talk (also a Nebula finalist), is frankly more than we deserve.

Permafrost, by Alastair Reynolds
Reynolds combines cli-fi and time-travel with a brilliantly twisty story that begins at the tail end of the 21st century. A group of desperate scientists gather at the Arctic Circle to implement a dangerous experiment they believe is the final chance to avert climate disaster. They intend to reach back in time and make a small change—something so tiny that recorded history will remain intact, but so vital, it will change the fate of the planet. They require one person to make it work: a schoolteacher whose mother was the greatest mind in the field of paradox. Five decades earlier, a woman undergoes brain surgery and wakes up with not just a voice but a sentient will in her head—a will that seems to serve a purpose all its own.

The Chaos Function, by Jack Skillingstead
Strange and ancient technology threatens the future (and the past) in the new book from Locus and Philip K. Dick award nominee Skillingstead (Harbinger, Life on the Preservation). Wartime journalist Olivia Nikitas loses her lover, a humanitarian worker named Brian, while both are on the front lines of a conflict in Aleppo. She is overwhelmed with grief—and then she isn’t, because impossibly, Brian is alive, despite the fact that Olivia remembers holding him as he died. Back in the states, she is abducted by a group known as Society that claims to have the power to control the course of the future through charting the course of all probable futures, and they quickly recruit Olivia to serve as one of their “Shepherds.” Unfortunately, whatever she did to save Brian’s life appears to have doomed the rest of the world to nuclear war. Now, Olivia is on the run from Society, trying to save the world without killing the man she loves—again.

Unfettered III: New Tales by Masters of Fantasy, edited by Shawn Speakman
When Shawn Speakman was facing a cancer and without medical insurance a few years ago, he asked writers to donate stories to the first volume of Unfettered to help him pay his medical bills. Subsequent entries in what has become an impressive anthology series pay it forward, with proceeds donated to allay the medical debts of other writers. Considering the lineup of talent, this may be the easiest donation you make this month. It includes stories by Delilah S. Dawson, Lev Grossman, Seanan McGuire, Carrie Vaughn, and Tad Williams, but the biggest draw for many will be the new stories in the Dune milieu, from Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, and in the world of The Wheel of Time, co-written by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.

What new books are on your list this week?

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Pirate Action, Family Drama, and Ancient Tech Collide in Shadow Captain

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

The Ness sisters banded together and won an overwhelming victory against nearly impossible odds. That might have been their happy ending, except that life goes on, and the past refuses to let go. Alastair Reynolds’ Shadow Captain follows on from 2017’s pirate-flavored space opera Revenger. It’s the story of a crew of space privateers caught between family, loyalty, and revenge.

In the first book, Adrana and Fura Ness beat Bosa Sennen, the most ruthless and notorious pirate in the galaxy. The sisters, along with a handful of companions, claimed her ship in the process—no insignificant prize. The victory wasn’t without consequence, though: Fura has become obsessed with the pirate queen’s secrets, while Adrana (our point-of-view character) retains traces of the conditioning she received as an unwilling part of Bosa’s crew.

In a more concrete way, they’re also flying around in a well-known and very much hated ship, with no one particularly convinced that the former captain is dead. (The ones who do believe it don’t particularly care; revenge against the ship itself will suffice). They’ve got a great ship and plenty of money, but nowhere to go and no way to resupply. There are the “baubles” out there for the claiming, space-borne bits of ancient technology, but finding one requires fuel and resources, and even that is a gamble: one might contain riches, while another might hold only danger.

While being pursued, the crew makes a plan to disguise themselves and their vessel and head for Wheel Strizzardy, an outpost far from any center of power, where they might get away with a deception. Naturally, trouble follows them—an unfortunate encounter with a pursuing ship leaves them open to even greater suspicion, and their arrival at Wheel Strizzardy forces them into an unwanted alliance with a local crime lord and his eclectic gang. The problems come as much from within as without, with the Ness sisters’ trust in one another fraying with each new complication.

Like Revenger, Shadow Captain takes place many millions of years into the future, with civilization having risen and fallen many times in the interval. Though there are steampunk ideas at work, Reynolds doesn’t limit himself to any particular set of tropes: each rise in civilization has been preceded by a long dark age, so society runs on salvaged technology no one completely understands.

Called “Occupations,” each earlier rise left behind both trauma and unique relics. Ships fly on enormous solar sails and communicate by linking themselves into alien skulls that form mental links with other bone readers. Space battles, though infrequent, resemble naval combat. And, of course, piracy is rampant. With worldbuilding that wears its influences on its sleeve and occasionally wild shifts in tone (one run-in with some comically ominous characters on Wheel Strizzardy feels straight out of Dickens), it’s hard not to think these disparate elements have no business working together. But Reynolds is a pro, and what might otherwise be a hodge-podge becomes exhilarating in its momentum and variety. His willingness to have some fun in a story that’s not, on the surface, particularly light, is what really powers the Revenger and her crew.

With this series, Reynolds is aiming at several different targets. The fractured family dynamic between the loyal, tough, damaged sisters is at the story’s heart, and they exist within a compelling, period-inspired universe populated by colorful characters and mysterious technology. Over the course of the sequel, a third level comes into view, one that plays to the hard science fiction strengths of the author. The Ness sisters and their crew become increasingly aware that there are bigger mysteries in their vast solar system, and that the various Occupations of humanity might not be nearly as random as previously thought.

Shadow Captain does what a great sequel should do: it builds upon, rather than replicates, the earlier work while escalating the drama and upping the stakes. Though it is more straightforward than the more epic Revelation Space series, Reynolds’ fans will certainly not be disappointed, and the worlds’-shattering conclusion has us very much looking forward to our next voyage with the Ness sisters.

Shadow Captain is available now.

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The New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2019

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

We’re done looking back at the best sci-fi and fantasy, horrorcomics, and manga of 2018. Now we turn our gaze to the year ahead: here are the new sci-fi and fantasy books coming in 2019 that our team of bloggers and reviewers can’t wait to read.

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir (September 10)
Hello, I am cheating, because I read Tamsyn Muir’s buzzy debut back in September, but I can’t think of another recent (or forthcoming!) book I’d rather experience again for the first time. It’s the story of snarky, smart-mouthed young necromancer Gideon, drafted against her will into a game of galactic intrigue that quickly turns into a meme-filled Agatha Christie murder mystery in a sealed off, decrepit space castle. With skeletons! I loved it so much I blurbed it (“Gonzo fantasy. If Gene Wolfe, Mervyn Peake, and Ray Harryhausen collaborated on a novel on Reddit, the results might be half as mad and a quarter as entertaining as Tamsyn Muir’s necro-maniacal debut.”), and you will too. Love it, I mean. – Joel Cunningham

The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling (April 2)
I’m cheating here too, since I’ve read this one, but you don’t want to miss it: Starling’s tense and exciting debut follows a cave-diver astronaut on an alien who discovers horrors underground. I read it all the way through, barely taking any time to breathe. A must read for thriller fans. – Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

Empress of Forever, by Max Gladstone (June 18)
The Craft Sequence established Max Gladstone as one of the most innovative voices in fantasy. Now he is turning his considerable talents toward a universe-spanning space opera featuring time travel, space empires, and a swashbuckling team of far-future renegades. I have only the faintest idea of what to expect from a book billed as “a feminist Guardians of the Galaxy crossed with Star Wars,” but I know that anything from Gladstone’s word processor will be wildly imaginative, devastatingly smart, and like no space opera I’ve read before. – Kelly Quinn-Chiu

The Hod King, by Josiah Bancroft (January 22)
Erstwhile headmaster Thomas Senlin has been climbing the Tower of Babel, on the hunt for his lost wife Marya, for two books. Inching ever upward through grotesque Ringdoms, he’s amassed a motley and charming supporting cast. So, I can’t wait for The Hod King, which promises to give some of those characters (fearsome Iren, mischievous Voleta, and capable captain Edith) far more of our attention. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll hear from Marya, too. – Nicole Hill

Dark Shores, by Danielle L. Jensen (May 7)
Two continents divided by impassable-but-by-magic seas, a badass pirate princess of color, a monstrous scion of nearly forgotten gods, and a legion commander with a dark past from an Empire set on world domination? Sign me up. I’ve been longing for a sweeping epic that takes me out of the traditional psuedo-European model and into more exotic territory, and Dark Shores looks like it fits the bill, with the added bonus of what I hope will be a critical eye on colonialism and a complex emotional sub-plot to keep me engaged in this global saga. Yes, it’s billed as YA, but it has all the signs of being just as nuanced and adventurous as Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy, which I couldn’t get enough of. – Ardi Alspach

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James (February 5)
I’m so excited about Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which has been blurbed as an “African Game of Thrones”: a fantasy national epic more based on African history and folklore. The brutal, bloody politics, roster of disparate characters, and sheer freaking scope of A Brief History of Seven Killings (for which he won the Booker prize) suggests James will crush epic fantasy. – Ceridwen Christensen

Collision: Stories, by J.S. Breukelaar (February 19)
I read Breukelaar’s novel Aletheia earlier this year, and she blew me away with a story that took unexpected turns and seduced me with its vivid prose and flawed, compelling characters. It’s a book I still think about a lot. Since I love short fiction, I really can’t wait to read this collection and see what dark and magical dreams she’ll bring to life there. – Maria Haskins

Empire of Grass, by Tad Williams (May 7)
Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is a classic for a reason. Twenty-five years later, Williams has returned to the land of Osten Ard with The Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, a direct sequel to his famous series, picking up with many of the same characters, themes, and locations fans know and love. The first volume, The Witchwood Crown was a brilliant reintroduction to the series, and Empire of Grass looks to continue Williams’ run as one of our generation’s greatest fantasists. It’s got everything you love—from plucky heroes to mysterious magic, a beautiful world, rich and full of life, but also ancient and barreling toward a new, unforeseeable future. – Adian Moher

The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley (March 19)
I’m an unabashed mark for military science fiction that has an ethical core rather than a Physics degree. Hurley’s work is never less than impressive and this story of soldiers discovering just how they’re being deployed, and the temporal price they’re paying for it, looks fantastic. – Alasdair Stuart

This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (July 16)
I’ll read pretty much anything with the words “time war” in the title, description, or randomly on page 42, but with these two authors involved, it’s doubtless going to be pretty awesome. Especially since it all kicks off with someone finding a letter on a desolate battlefield marked “burn before reading.” Both Gladstone and El-Mohtar have earned more or less my blind allegiance, but honestly, they had me at the title. – Jeff Somers

Ancestral Night, by Elizabeth Bear (March 5)
A return to space opera after a number of years for Bear. An engineer, a pilot, an AI and a booby trapped derelict ship that leads the pair into a chase with interstellar governments, pirates, and oh yes, the black hole at the center of the galaxy. In an era where space opera is big again, I’ll be very glad to hear Bear’s voice resounding once again in one of my favorite subgenres of SFF. – Paul Weimer

Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig (July 2)
I’ve adored Chuck Wendig’s gritty, creepy writing style since his first Miriam Black novel dropped. He’s written about a zillion works since, but I’m dying to get my hands on this post-apocalyptic jewel. Perhaps because this book, teased as Station 11 meets The Stand, gives off literary-level vibes that imply Wendig is really upping his game on this one—without losing his signature penchant for the darker side of the genre. – Emily Wenstrom

Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky (May 14)
I’m being slightly lazy with this pick, in that Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time was my favorite book of 2018. That self-contained book didn’t demand a sequel, which makes it all the more exciting that we’re getting one—though I might be a hair disappointed if it’s not just the further adventures of hyper-evolved spiders. I expect I’ll love it regardless. – Ross Johnson

Permafront, by Alastair Reynolds (March 19)
Alastair Reynolds is one of my favorite authors, and this novella sounds poised to deliver on a great premise —what if you could travel back in time and make a slight adjustment that meant humanity avoided global catastrophe, but would leave all of recorded history intact? A no-brainer, huh? What could possibly go wrong? – Tim O’Brien

Stormsong, by C.L. Polk (February 11)
Witchmark was one of the best books I read in 2018—a beautiful, romantic, and immersive story and a breath of fresh air in a year that was pretty freaking awful. I nearly cried with joy when I heard there was going to be a sequel; I need to know what happens to everyone. Stormsong will focus on Miles’ sister, Grace, who must deal with the horrible consequences on what they put in motion in Witchmark. Storms threaten to tear their city apart and the book will probably tear my heart apart. I have a few months to get mentally ready and it still probably won’t be enough. I can not wait. – Meghan Ball

Thorn of Emberlain, by Scott Lynch (???)
Just because it doesn’t have a release date, or might not be technically finished, doesn’t mean I can’t anticipate it. It’s been almost six years since The Republic of Thieves was released, and I’m raring to get back to the world of Gentlemen Bastards—a place where the mages are ruthless, the humans are devious, and even priests and children swear like sailors. While Scott Lynch takes his time with books, his “when it’s done” approach never fails to deliver, and I’m looking forward to seeing him follow on from the devastating conclusion of book three. – Sam Reader

What’s your most-anticipated SFF book of 2019?

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