Signal Boost! The Stone Soldiers Series

Guest Signal Boost by Nate Winchester

If you’ve read much of my blog and my thoughts on the show, Supernatural, you’ll know I sometimes discuss how the show ends up being a parable on the patterns civilization and anarchy. The most common being when citizens are in danger, ordinary folks will have to step up to do the necessary tasks. If this becomes common enough, society institutionalizes the job. Example: Laws must be enforced in a society – people have better things to do – ergo the society creates the institution of “police” to enforce the norms of that society.

The Stone Soldiers series runs with the question: What if the USA institutionalized dealing with the supernatural? Or for the show’s fans, “What if hunters were deputized?”

But this series isn’t some philosophical treatise or navel-gazing, no sir. It’s pure pulp slathering on action & coolness over its questioning. This isn’t Law & Order: SPN (though I would pay to watch that) but Hawaii-five-O: SPN. This is Sam & Dean going on hunts with the US government backing them up. (Which, yes I will admit that the government being efficient or effective at anything is probably the most fantastical part of the books – and I’m counting the shapeshifters.)

Of course if you gave Sam & Dean all the backing of the USA government, you’d also have to up the threat and that is certainly done here as the books set up a beastie so nasty, even the Predator would hesitate going after one of these. Yes, that movie was brought to mind a few times since one can see Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime playing the lead role of this series.

Anyway, if you have an enemy too mean, it becomes questionable whether the heroes can win at all. This brings us to my second favorite part of the series. See, in his review for the X-files episode “Fresh Bones” Chuck of SF Debris proposed the question: If, in the XF universe, “everything is real” what if humans fought aliens with things like… voodoo? Or to put it another way: what if invading aliens landed on an ancient Indian burial ground? In this series, the defenders of humanity run with that very question of mixing & matching supernatural features. If Medusa’s gaze only affects males, what happens to a shape-shifter that can be male or female? Could we partially infect soldiers with werewolfism to make them stronger without the curse side effects? (There weren’t aliens in the first two books, but they may show up later given the titles of later volumes.) This book series runs with those challenges and even answers them with logic and consistency – no really, I can’t express my gratitude for how well this world keeps things working. The only thing I appreciated more was its general appropriate use of religion without being insulting or stupid like some modern fiction.

Any cons to the books? Well the prose style isn’t quite to my taste but it does its job well enough and shouldn’t be a hindrance to less snobbish readers though some parts can end up being repetitive. The character work is pretty light with the protagonists painted more with broad brushes than nuance. I was informed that the first book was adapted from a screenplay submitted for a contest and it does show (for example, the “rednecks who mug the monster” bit) while the 2nd book at least works far better under the strictures of the novel format.

But all in all, it’s a quick, light read. You can check out the first book for free at the link below, and get the 2nd one (for only a dollar) if you want.

Summery – It’s an 80s action movie mixed with the supernatural in book form.

Colonel Mark Kenslir is the last of the Cold War supersoldiers–and he’s just come back from the dead. 

Sent to Arizona to hunt a heart-devouring shapeshifter, Colonel Kenslir and his team of supernatural-smashing soldiers thought it was just another mission. But instead of stopping the monster’s murderous rampage, the Colonel and his team became the latest victims in a trail of carnage blazed across the Southwest.

Suffering from partial amnesia, with no weapons and no support, Kenslir must rely on two reluctant teens to help him remember his past, complete his final mission and avenge his men.

(Warning! Contains extreme violence and pulp action that may be too intense for some readers.)

Colonel Mark Kenslir, a cold warrior cursed to live forever, is rebuilding his team of stone soldiers after a campaign to stop a rampaging shapeshifter in the American southwest. But word soon arrives that someone, or something, is again on the loose, ripping out and consuming human hearts to steal the memories and forms of civilians.

Kenslir enlists the help of one brave teen and an FBI postcognitive empath to track down the new killer–only to discover there are now two prehistoric shapeshifters loose in the modern world.

Falling back to their headquarters to regroup and replenish their numbers, the Detachment soon find themselves under assault from the ravenous shapeshifters–who are intent on pillaging the military’s greatest supernatural treasures.

Can a new generation of stone soldiers and a girl struggling to understand her new cryokinetic abilities turn the tide of battle, or will Colonel Kenslir die at the hands of a shapeshifter again?

The Stone Soldiers are America’s secret weapon against the forces of darkness. A small detachment of psychics, supernatural soldiers and men turned to living stone, they respond to threats conventional forces are not equipped to handle. Battling myths, monsters and magic around the world, the men and women of Detachment 1039 stand ready to do whatever it takes to stop evil in its tracks.

 

John W. Campbell versus Appendix N

There’s been some discussion here about the battles over science fiction sub-genres. The folks at Castalia House complain a lot about John W Campbell Jr’s destruction of the heroic tradition in fantasy literature. I have to wonder how he pulled that off. His power was holding the editorship of one magazine: Astounding, later Analog, from 1937 to 1971. He turned that into the flagship of Hard SF, aka Blue SF, and boosted the careers of many writers. He’s been praised as the most influential editor ever . . . by writers whose careers he started and sustained.

I don’t disagree that he was willing to sacrifice heroism and Christian values in stories to get the technical content he wanted. But how much impact did he have outside of the pages of his own magazine?

Fortunately we have a reference for heroic stories: Appendix N. Let’s take a look at those writers and stories and see how much of a dent JWC made in them.

Appendix N Author Careers

This graph looks at how many of the 28 Appendix N authors were active in each decade (excluding posthumous publications). We can see many of them were producing past Campbell’s death in 1971. Michael Moorcock, God bless him, had an original story out in 2014. The graph peaks in the 1960s because the list doesn’t include anyone whose first publication was after 1966 (Bellairs).

Looks like JWC didn’t ruin that many careers. He even published some writers who appeared in Appendix N, such as Poul Anderson’s math puzzle story “The Three-Cornered Wheel.”

But did he force those writers to do different kinds of stories? Let’s graph the works by their publications. Many were series, so those appear in all decades from start to end, again excluding posthumous publications or series continued by new authors (We’ve seen that later authors were not always doing Appendix-N worthy work).

Appendix N Works by Decade

Not as smooth a curve as the authors’ careers, but clearly the bulk of the Appendix N stories were published after JWC began his reign of terror, not before. As a destructive tyrant he doesn’t seem to be much of a success.

Another claim is that JWC tried to wipe out fantasy writing to reserve the shelves for the science side of science fiction. I don’t know how well that matches with when JWC founded the fantasy magazine Unknown Worlds, but let’s see if we can detect his impact.

Wikipedia provides a convienent, if fuzzy, source of data for this. It has categories by decade and genre for its novel pages. Wikipedia’s biases are well known, but consistent. So we can use this to get a feel for how many fantasy novels were released each decade.

I’m just not seeing a 1937-1971 reign of terror there. Yes, there’s a dip in the 1940s. Given that World War II created a paper shortage and put many writers in uniform, I don’t think we can give JWC credit for that. Afterwards the number just keeps soaring. There’s people writing fantasy, and presumably reading it.

Applying the same technique lets us compare fantasy and science fiction. Wikipedia says:

Now that’s interesting. Science Fiction started outselling Fantasy in the 1930s and kept going. The WWII dip was there, JWC couldn’t save his beloved genre from global catastrophe, but after that SF took off and kept going with up to five SF novels for every fantasy one. The genres are closer together now as fantasy production takes off.

Some of that is undoubtedly categorization. There’s a big fuzzy area between Hard SF stories with screwdrivers and Tolkienesque quest fantasy. Star Wars could be classed as “Swords and Sorcery with spaceships” instead of an SF story with fantastic elements if that’s how the marketers wanted to pitch it.

But one thing is certain: fantasy never went away. The number of fantasy books published kept increasing through John W. Campbell Jr.’s career. If he tried to stop that, he failed.

So now what? Is there anything written past 1980 worth reading?

The key test of Appendix N isn’t just that they were good stories. They were the stories that inspired Dungeons and Dragons. In fact they inspired more than D&D. Lovecraft’s stories led to the Call of Cthulhu RPG and its descendents. There’s an Elric RPG. Conan has some RPGs of his own, as well as a GURPS book.

GURPS is a good starting point for looking at other books impacting role-playing games. Steve Jackson has built one of the longest careers in the gaming industry by surfing the trends. Let’s look at his take on Appendix N.

GURPS Conan is the obvious starting point. Other Appendix N authors receiving the GURPS treatment were L. Sprague de Camp (Planet Krishna), Jack Vance (Planet of Adventure), Phillip Jose Farmer (Riverworld), Andre Norton (Witch World), and Lovecraft (multiple variants on Cthulhu).

What post Appendix N authors have a GURPS book? Horseclans (Robert Adams), Uplift (David Brin), Vorkosigan (Lois Bujold), Humanx (Alan Dean Foster), War Against the Chtorr (David Gerrold), Wild Cards (GRR Martin), Discworld (Terry Pratchett), Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon (Spider Robinson), Illuminati (Shea & Wilson), and New Sun (Gene Wolfe). If you include comic authors there’s Hellboy (Mike Mignola) and Case & Andy (Andy Weir).

Some RPG inspiration is going on there. But GURPS is a narrow segment of the RPG market. What’s going on elsewhere?

Lots.

Anne Rice’s Interview With a Vampire led to Vampire: the Masquerade and the many other World of Darkness games (arguably the anti-D&D, but it brought lots of people to the table which makes it a significant influence).

William Gibson’s Neuromancer sparked the cyberpunk genre. Shadowrun was the most famous of these, but there’s several others including a GURPS book.

Gibson teamed with Bruce Sterling to write The Difference Engine, creating steampunk. Again, there’s multiple RPGs in this subgenre.

And that’s just the famous ones. Glen Cook’s Black Company series spawned an RPG. I’m sure there’s lots of others out there I’ve never heard of.

More than game books, we need inspiration from stories. There are two science fiction novels that stand above the three decades for that: A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge) and The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson). Either could keep a gaming group in ideas for years.

I grant those are both on the science fiction side of the genre divide, because that’s where I spend the most of my time. Please nominate your fantasy contenders in the comments.

Caption This! week #5

I’m so sorry, I totally forgot about this yesterday :p But don’t worry! Better late than never!

The game still continues with this fabulous picture! (Because it reminds me a Castle in the Sky, which I just recently watched)

 

And congrats to Scholar-at-Arms for the caption of last weeks photo! (I would die so hard if I ever come upon something like that in a game. And by die, I mean die laughing. I don’t think that thing could kill anyone. Unless I had a REALLY weak character…. ) 

Anyway, have a good week y’all!

“Make Mine Marvel No More!”

Call me inspired by Goldeneye’s posts on comics here, but I’ve started to pay more attention to the comic industry, and I see that Marvel Comics has a big problem.

I was in my local comic shop today, of which I don’t frequent nearly as much as I used to. I don’t want to say I lost a love for comics, as I recently just plowed through the trade paperbacks of Chew and finished 4 of the end of the series in one night. I feel similarly about Revival and Terry Moore’s Motor Girl. However, it’s been at least three to four years since I stopped making weekly appointments to go to the comic shop on Wednesdays, eager to pick up new books. I mentioned in an earlier post that the way storytelling has gone, I don’t really want to pick up individual issues anymore. That’s certainly part of it, but I’m also consuming a lot less content than ever before.

Around the time I stopped regularly buying comics, I cut ties and dropped the last vestiges of my Marvel Comics reading. EPIC CROSSOVER EVENTS had been anything but epic for me for years, making it difficult to read individual comic storylines (this issue of Amazing Spider-Man takes place after Civil War #4 and continues in X-Factor #17!), and trying to one-up the last with a new “shocking” death or even “shockinger” resurrection. This was hard for me to do. I’d been reading Marvel Comics since I was 10. That all started with a subscription to Amazing Spider-Man that my aunt bought for me for Christmas. If I had to choose desert island top 5 all time favorite comic characters, they would be: 5. Spider-Girl 4. Fantastic Four (I count them as one unit). 3. Captain America 2. Black Cat (way better than Catwoman) 1. Spider-Man.  Marvel meant a ton to me over the years, and if I added up all the money i’ve spent on their comics, I probably could buy myself a new car at the very least.  So it pained me to let them go.

What I heard today was disconcerting to me, because I care about Marvel Comics, and more because of what their mistakes do to the comic industry as a whole. The local shop owner told me that Marvel used to comprise about 48% of their sales, and now they’re down to about 25%. Whoa. That’s a huge drop. And I know that doesn’t mean that people are jumping ship and buying equal amount of titles of other books. The comic book readers like me, are mostly quitting except for picking out a few titles here and there. It’s really sad. Marvel, apparently, has it the worst, as the shop owner mentioned that the distributor comes into the shop, asks how things are going, with a caveat of “other than marvel” and they laugh about the poor sales together.

Now this could be anecdotal for one shop, but it’s not. If you look ten years ago, Marvel led comic sales across the board, every time, hands down, and had for decades prior to that. What happened was laziness, complacency, an unwillingness to learn from business mistakes and a healthy dose of social justice sprinkled in on top of that to seal their coffin.

Marvel went wrong in a few big ways that they need to correct:

  1. Crossover events. I mentioned how they’re just not special anymore. They haven’t been special in a decade. You may get a boost in sales temporarily but it doesn’t do anything for the long term. I hate them. Most readers hate them. We tolerated them for awhile because it looked like Bendis and Co. were doing cool things with the universe, but it turned out there wasn’t much of a real plan there other than to make new crossover events. I pick up a book to read its story. If you want to do a team up whatever with Spidery and X-Men you can make that happen within the confines of the one story and without 50,000 loose tie ins that the writers shoe-horn in. It makes for lousy books every single time.
  2. Variant covers. I was informed that it was recently or is “Venom variant month” where everything has a Venom variant cover. Look, variants were cool a couple of times, when it was special. Once it started happening all the time, it killed collecting. There’s barely any collecting going on now, and that’s your fault, comic industry. Marvel is repeating these mistakes by killing the specialness of such things even more.
  3. Social Justice. It stems from the editorial down to the writers, and they’re al the same lockstep of trying to force a left wing social narrative on everyone trying to relax and read Hulk beating up bad guys in a pure rage. Your overall audience aren’t hipsters in New York City. We’re spread out across the country and are probably split mostly along the way they country’s split. Recognize that. I couldn’t find any book that looked like the iconic characters any longer. Everyone is a gender swap trans muslim whatever gimmick of the month to virtue signal how diverse they are. And it suffers from the same problems as the first two points I made about the industry. When this was done once or twice, it was something different. It was cute. It made news headlines. Marvel got a quick sales bump. They went for that cheap gimmick on repeat rather than maintaining excellence in storytelling. It’s not making something new, it’s using a marketing gimmick for what would have been a single issue of What If? 30 years ago. A bigger problem is it isn’t to evoke the same sense of What If? fun and wonder, it’s 100% completely for the virtue signal. That intent shows through, it annoys people. No one wants it, for real.
  4. Distribution. This is an old problem, but it’s getting steadily worse. Throwing these things in specialty comic shops only or lost on the internet just gets clouded with easier to find, easier to digest content. Not exclusively Marvel’s fault here, but they need to get with a new program. I don’t have an answer here, but someone smarter than me working for Disney probably does.
  5. Not Telling A Story In An Issue. Stories go like this: Issue 1: Thor wakes up, brushes his (or her, or xer or whatever gender this week is popular) teeth. Eats breakfast. Heads out the door. Something happens. Cliffhanger to be continued! That is not enough to get me remotely interested in what’s going on, let alone to remember what happened a month from now to continue it. This is why I’m only buying trades, which hurts sales. I think the last instance I remember where whole stories were told was Tom De Falco’s Spectacular Spider-Girl, the third incarnation of that book. He’s a great storyteller. I miss him on Marvel books. When a book was a book. Cliffhangers ok, but give me a full story.
  6. Resting on the laurels of Stan Lee. There’s nothing new, and that’s nothing new. Really the problem is Iron Man is 50+ years old. And they’ll do their social justice gimmick “what if Iron Man is…. female! Because women and men are interchangeable!” and then, when a movie’s about to hit, they go quickly to revert back to some iconic unchanging Iron Man. Then repeat. There’s no long term investment available for these storylines. Marvel attempted it and succeed to make continuing stories for these characters up until about the 90s, but they couldn’t think of ways to keep them going and maintain continuity. I’m still pissed over One More Day. That was lazy writing. It doesn’t help that readers are disappointing, and any attempt to bring forth something new doesn’t last, but it’s partially Marvel’s fault for letting it get that way, and not really pushing their top talent toward those endeavors. Frankly, I loved Runaways, Arana, Spider-Girl, Spider-Man 2099. Many others did too. They didn’t get a long term commitment or lasting support from marketing or editorial. They were vestiges allowed to exist for a time as an experiment, but they were too little too late. To fix this, Marvel needs to make a real dedicated push and be willing to make a long term plan out of it. It probably involves disconverging the “Marvel Universe” and letting some books be separate, like Image does. I doubt they’ll ever be able to do that.

My last point is my greatest, and the reasoning is that any of these fixes can be done to one or two books, or for a bit. Someone will always come in with an ALL NEW SUPER COLLECTORS #1 and reset it to just these five terrible points on repeat. We know that as the readership, and that’s part of why Marvel’s lost its luster. It needs real creatives, real leadership to take it in a bold and fresh new direction to resolve this. I doubt it’s going to happen any time soon.

I long for the days of someone saying “Excelsior!” once again.

Jon Del Arroz is a science fiction author best known for his Top-10 Amazon Space Opera Bestseller, Star Realms: Rescue Run. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is oft hailed (quite soberly!) as the Dean Martin of the science fiction writing scene. Read his blog at http://delarroz.com and follow him on Gab: @otomo. 

Corey Reviews Howl’s Moving Castle

My first experience with the works of Hayao Miyazaki was with a film called Castle in the Sky, previously reviewed on this site. I was a very young child at the time, so I didn’t understand everything, I just liked the robots and the weird flying city.

However, I had rewatched it a few years ago, and fell in love with Miyazaki’s work. So, I went to watch another movie, one whose title was similar to Castle in the Sky, named Howl’s Moving Castle. (I originally had mistaken the two, but the dates they were made cleared that up.)

The tone of the two movies is a little different. While Castle In the Sky has threads of a coming-of-age story, Howl’s Moving Castle does not. And while there is a romance in Castle in the Sky, the romance formed in Howl’s Moving Castle is much more mature and realized (and by mature, I do not mean mature in content. There are no steamy scenes seen, nor any of that kind of action even implied. I mean the romance is handled in a much more serious, and deeper, way than it is handled in Castle in the Sky.) Howl’s Moving Castle is also based off of a book by the same name, which it deviates from considerably, while Castle in the Sky is completely original from Miyazaki.

But above all else, Castle in the Sky is an adventure story. It may have hints of a fairy-tale settings, especially with the levitating castle, but other things (Such as the super-destructive robot-golems, and the sky pirates) place it in the category of an adventure movie.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a fairy tale.

That’s clear from the opening shot, where you look across the misty hills of the countryside, and see the gigantic, semi-alive castle walk past on its gigantic chicken-feet (giant metal chicken feet). That is the first sign, but the first hint occurs when the main characters, Sophie and Howl, finally meet.

Sophie, a hatter, is walking to the bakery after work while her town is having a military parade. Instead of fighting her way through the crowds of the parade, she decides to walk through the back alleys, and on her way, she is confronted by two soldiers, who are unpleasantly persistent in making advances on her. A few seconds after these guys confront her, the wizard Howl (though unnamed) appears by her side. With a few magical gestures, he sends the men on a stiff-limbed forced march away, and offers to escort Sophie.

However, things very quickly take a turn for the mysterious, as Howl informs her they’re being followed. It soon becomes obvious that their pursuers are no ordinary people, but strange, sorcerous blob-monsters that ooze out of the walls. Howl and Sophie’s brisk walk turns into a run through the alleys as more of these things pour after them. After they round a corner, more of these blobs appear in the way out, blocking their exit. And then, when all hope seems lost, and they’re about to be overwhelmed by the magical monsters…

…they leap. Howl grabs Sophie, and they soar into the air in one of the most wonder-inducing moments of the movie. They soar up, and then, slowly, they walk through the air, across a bustling city, over colorful crowds, before Howl sets her down on a balcony, before promising to draw the things away.

There is the wonder, the awe and mystery of magic shown, not as a form of arcane and esoteric science as many fantasy novels would show it (I myself can appreciate that style of magic) but as a thing of beauty and wonder, that makes your eyes go wide. That is one aspect of the fairy tale.

There is the darker aspect of fairy tales that must be remembered. For every Sleeping Beauty, there was her curse that put an entire kingdom to ensorcelled slumber, and a wicked fairy with all the powers of Hell at her disposal. For every Snow White, there was a poisoned apple, and a jealous queen who was suddenly no longer the ‘fairest of them all.’ For every Beauty and her Beast, there is the Beast’s curse, and the stubborn pride that earned him that curse. And Howl’s Moving Castle is no exception.

The curse is the hex placed on Sophie, turning her from a pretty, if slightly plain, young woman into a ninety-year-old crone, and the one who does it is the Witch of the Waste, an evil enchantress who targets Sophie after seeing her with Howl. Trying to hide from her family, so they don’t see the results of that curse (part of which prevents her from speaking of it), she flees, uncovering an animated scarecrow named Turnip Head, before stumbling upon the wizard Howl’s titular Moving Castle.

Within, she ends up meeting the ancillary characters, Howl’s apprentice named Marco, and a fire demon named Calcifer (He calls himself a ‘big scary fire demon,’ but he’s too cute). She bargains with Calcifer to break her curse if she can free him from the castle, which imprisons him.

Now, there were a few aspects of this movie that worked wonderfully. A subplot involves a war going on, between two rival kingdoms. Howl fights both sides, trying to end the war himself, risking his own life (and a fate worse than death) to do so. This doesn’t detract from the romantic arc that takes place, and ends up mixing in, where all the story arcs begin to intermingle in such a good way.

Another, that I had briefly touched upon, was the subject of the magic. This is pure fairy-tale sorcery, animated par excellence by Studio Ghibli. Some scenes that stood out involve ‘moving’ the Castle, where, after drawing a symbol in chalk on the ground, Howl casts a spell that causes the room to warp, throwing furniture into existence, reshaping the walls and ceiling until the room around them has changed completely. Another scene involves a battle between two magicians, with one summoning strange, shadowy apparitions that dance in oddly mesmerizing patterns.

The magic has that primal sense of wonder to it, but has its own rules, though not as well defined as the works of, say, Brandon Sanderson (who I have read quite a bit of). The lack of definition allows for a sense of wonder and open-ended possibility, the kind that permeates the fairy-tale wizard. One scene, where Sophie enters Howl’s bedroom, had shown him hoarding all these wondrous devices, and you were never offered an explanation as to what any of them did (except for one device, and then Howl only said it detected someone was looking for them). That only added to the mystery and wonder of the strange arts that Howl, and others, had mastered.

The final aspect I liked was the ending. There was a moment where you could have said, ‘They lived happily ever after,’ and you wouldn’t be wrong. But instead of being overly-saccharine and unrealistic, it is the natural end result of the story. A villain (as there are several) is redeemed. Love triumphs when all hope seems lost. And they lived happily ever after.

A quick note. This is considered one of the lesser Miyazaki films. I have a special liking to it, as my own stories often involve wizards and magic, and I understand that his other films, such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke are much better. I understand, but because of the visuals and the subject (wizards and magic) this remains one of my favorite films.

In short, definitely recommended for any Miyazaki fan, as with the rest of his works.

Josh! What is best in Sci-Fi?

There’s been a lot of lively debate the last few weeks about the relative merits of things like pulp vs no pulp, and why the devil would you ever want to drink orange juice without pulp? Or worse, strain wonderful apple cider of all its suspended pulpy particles and turn it into apple juice…. Or, rather, I guess, pulp sci-fi vs men with screwdrivers sci-fi. The contention seems to broadly be that straining the pulp out of science fiction has left us with the science fiction equivalent to the abomination that is apple juice and pulpless orange juice, and that it all the fault of John W. Campbell and his cohorts. Broadly speaking.

I’m not a science fiction historian. I mean, compared to the average guy, I’ve read a pretty wide swath of science fiction and fantasy, including relative unknowns like J. H. Rosny. I tend to range pretty far, rather than sticking to one particular style or period that I like. But I can’t argue about what certain editors wanted or promoted, things like that; I’ve never really had the reason to look into it, and frankly, I’d rather just read the stories. But last week and the week before, as I was up to my neck in midterms (8000+ words of theology written, plus all the accompanying research), I kept drifting back to one thought: I really like men with screwdrivers in my scifi.

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