Elizabeth Bear is a multiple-award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy, whose recently completed Eternal Sky trilogy was called “the most significant epic fantasy published in the last decade” by Tor.com. Her most recent novel, Steles of the Sky, was released April 2014.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the host and his guests discuss various geeky topics.
Your new books are the Eternal Sky trilogy. Do you want to tell us how these came about?
I should say that these are what a friend of mine calls “silk road fantasy.” They’re an epic fantasy set in Central Asia and Eurasia, not our Central Asia and Eurasia, but a parallel one, a different history but a similar part of the world. I wanted to do something that was a little bit different from the sort of standard, generic European fantasy setting. Part of that is because my very good friend, Asha C. Srinivasan Shipman, who is obviously of Indian descent and had mentioned to me that she wished she could find more fantasy that reflected her heritage. It turns out that on my side, through my Cossack ancestors, because I’m Ukrainian on my father’s side, and on her side, we’re both descended from the Mongol hoard. In fact, she is a many-times-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan, and this is actually historically documented. Of course, apparently twenty percent of humanity is also descended from Genghis Khan, so it’s not that rare. He got around.
So I thought it would be really neat to write a book for her and for her sons, and also just reflecting that common heritage that she and I have. That was the thing that first put me into it. Then I started reading extensively about the history of the Mongol empires and various other empires, the Tibetan plateau, and what is now Kazakhstan, and this amazing, sweeping, deeply storied part of the world, and got very captivated by it.
When you were dreaming up this setting, what sort of research did you do? Were there any books that were particularly helpful?
There’s actually been a renaissance in the Western study of Mongolian history in the past fifty years, in part driven by the fact that a document called “The Secret History” was uncovered. It’s a family history written by someone in Genghis Khan’s household. A copy of this document was found in China, and it’s basically like an intimate personal portrait from an insider. This has spawned a whole plethora of books, some better than others. There’s a book called The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, which talks about his daughters-in-law and granddaughters-in-law, who did a lot of the work of keeping the empire going after he died. I don’t even know. I read so many books. I want to stress that this isn’t a historical fantasy. It’s a historically inspired fantasy. I’ve written rigorously researched historical fantasy set in our world, and this is not that.
Why don’t you give us an idea about what aspects of the book are drawn from the actual history and what are invented?
The societies in the book, and there are a number of them, are loosely based, or I wouldn’t even say based, possibly inspired, by various Earth cultures, although some of them are really invented out of whole cloth. This is a world where, because of a historical event that hasn’t been revealed yet, but maybe I will get the chance to write about some way, there essentially is no Western Europe, so there’s a cognate to the British Isles, and there’s a cognate to Scandinavia, but essentially the continent of Europe ends roughly around Prague, which means that basically all of those cultural and historical influences in our world are just nonexistent. There are no Romans. There really are no Greeks. Which leads to a very different cultural path and historical path. The Abrahamic religions don’t exist in this world. None of our major world religions exist. The closest thing that they come to is one theocracy that is the Caliphate, the worship of the scholar god who is the closest thing that they have to what we would consider an Abrahamic god. The inspiration for my protagonist’s life story is basically that he’s a younger son of a cadet branch of the imperial family, and there’s been a civil war going on for some time when the first book starts. His entire family has been wiped out, and he wakes up on a battlefield, and he decides, “This is it. I’m out of it. I’m going to go be a farmer. I’ve had enough of this.” History and fate being what they are, he’s not really allowed to pursue his quiet life as a sheep-herder for very long.
The author being who she is.
Yes, the author being a horrible troublemaker, he runs afoul of a necromancer who is the theocrat of a minor sect of a different religion who very much wants to put himself into a position of political power, and because he doesn’t have a lot of temporal power, how he decides to do this is by manipulating and controlling other people.
You said there are necromancers and there’s all sorts of magic in the book. Maybe we should talk about why is it called the Eternal Sky trilogy?
My training is as an anthropologist. Especially in the Victorian era and the Edwardian era, anthropology made so many horrible, horrible mistakes, and was used as a justification for just incredibly awful human rights abuses. The discipline and the science these days is profoundly self-conscious of those mistakes, and is attempting to inculcate its students this idea of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism and how the habits and prejudices of your tribe are just that: basically, teaching people that what they were raised to believe were sacred and inviolable truths are actually just the habits of your tribe. I thought it would be really neat to create a world in which not only is magic real and there are actual gods who actually have sway over various spheres of influence and various geographical areas, but that there was an external, physical manifestation of that. So literally, when you move from the sphere of influence of one god to the sphere of influence of another, the sky changes. You are under the sky of a different god. The sky is a different color in this world. When I first thought of it, I thought, “This is a really cool thing. This is flashy. It’s an eyeball kick. It’ll be so much fun,” and then I realized that it was incredibly emotionally important, not just to the characters but also to the readers, and that there were emotional beats in those moments when you came home to your own sky. In our world, we have a lesser version of this. I grew up in New England and moved to the Nevada desert for about seven years, and then came back to Connecticut, and I remember when I moved out there just being impressed by how it really seemed like a whole different sky. It doesn’t seem like they can be contiguous, the sun and sky of Nevada and the sun and sky of Connecticut. They don’t seem like they’re the same thing, even though they are.
It’s interesting because to the protagonist, Temur, the sky is almost like a newspaper or something for him because it gives him very personal news updates.
Yes, because the sky in that cognate reflects the composition of the royal family, so you can sort of check in on your relatives. And because it’s a slightly sexist society, it only reflects male relatives because they’re the ones who are in line to be heirs to the throne. But yes, the heavens actually do take an interest in you.
So that’s Temur, the protagonist, but there are a bunch of other characters in this book. Do you want to tell us about some of the other characters?
My personal favorite character is probably Hrahima, who is a giant anthropomorphic, badass tiger monk. An atheist tiger monk because she’s broken up with her god, which is hard to do when your god has an objective reality, but she’s bitter about some things that happened to her in the past, and she’s not talking to her deity anymore. Then there’s Samarkar, who is a former princess of the high plateau society that is sort of cognate to the Tibetan empire. I took a lot of liberties in when and where various empires happened because the Tibetan empire predated the Mongolian empire by a whole bunch of centuries, but in this reality their cognates are coexisting. Samarkar is actually one of the people who is most closely based on a real historical figure. Her backstory is very close to what happened to the Tibetan princess Samarkar. Although the Tibetan princess Samarkar did not go on to become a wizard. [Laughter] “Screw you guys! I’m going to wizarding school.” But I think she probably would’ve if she had the opportunity.
Tell us about the wizard school, because in this book, this is not exactly Hogwarts.
There are a bunch of different traditions of wizardry. Pretty much every culture has its own type of magic so the Qersnyk, the people of the Khaganate, have shamans. And the Rasani, who are the people who are most closely based on the Tibetan empire, their wizardry is a craft that involves a lot of science. They have attempted to understand things like how gunpowder works, and how plants grow, and how disease works, and for their time period they have fairly advanced knowledge of surgery, for example, which is useful because the way you come into your power as a wizard in this particular tradition is by giving up your power to generate life, to have children. So spay or neuter your wizard, essentially.
With the giving up your ability to have children to be able to do magic, could you just talk about how that idea came to you or how you developed that idea?
That was one of those things that came up in conversation with a group of friends, fellow writers. We were talking about the idea of magic through sacrifice, and one of the common tropes is that magicians, especially female magicians, have to preserve their virginity or chastity in order to create magic, and we were like, “What would be the biggest reasonable gamble that somebody would take?” because the way that this initiation works is they go through the training and then they have the neutering surgery, and then they have to go through an initiation to see if they actually get any power. So even if they survive the surgery, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to gain magic. That seemed like one of the biggest gambles you could possibly take, but also if you were trying to get out of a dynastic situation, which Samarkar, the female protagonist, is trying to do—she’s trying to remove herself from the succession so that she won’t be a royal pawn—then getting rid of your ability to have children is convenient.
It seems to me that a lot of times in fantasy, the ideas that have power are things that relate to people’s actual lives, and certainly for a lot of fantasy writers I know, this is a very real issue, right? Can you pursue your artistic career and have kids at the same time, in terms of money and time? I think for everybody there’s just sort of this balance between work and family and can you have both. Were you thinking of that at all when you were writing?
I was not thinking about that at the time, but it’s something that I’ve thought about for myself as a woman and as a professional. I made the decision not to have children personally. That’s really interesting. I hadn’t actually thought of that before. Good on you. Smart critic.
Thank you, thank you. I also wanted to talk about . . . how do you pronounce this name? Hrahima.
I think pretty much anything you do with a human mouth and tongue is going to be inaccurate. You should hear me trying to pronounce some of these names. I do not have a particularly good ear.
Actually, even just the title of the third book I wasn’t entirely sure how to pronounce, to be entirely honest with you (Steles of the Sky). But speaking of this anthropomorphic cat character, I wrote a story a few years ago featuring an anthropomorphic cat character, a bunch of them actually, and I was really surprised at how strong people’s reactions to that were. Both, I got a lot of love from the furry community, and then just a lot of the opposite of love from other quarters. I was wondering if you had experienced any of these strong feelings that people have toward these animal characters?
I have yet to have anybody complain about Hrahima. I’ve had some complaints about the magic pony because, full disclosure, these books do have a magic pony. She’s a very sarcastic magic pony even though she doesn’t have any actual lines of dialogue. But no complaints about the kitty that I’ve seen. I did, in writing her, try very, very hard to keep her from ever being cute and to always bear in mind that, even though she talks and communicates on what would be sort of like a human level, she still is a five-hundred-pound, eight-foot-tall, bipedal carnivore, and sort of always keep that in mind and try to show the physical respect that all of the other characters have for her—because really I can’t think of a whole heck of a lot that’s scarier than a tiger with human cognition. They are an incredibly impressive predator. Right up there with polar bears. Most large predators look at human beings and go, “Well, okay, that’s another large predator. We’ll achieve detente and stay away from each other,” but tigers and polar bears are looking at you and doing mental conversions to see whether it’s worth the calories to chase you down.
So who would win in a fight between a tiger and a polar bear?
Probably the polar bear, I think. Unless the tiger got surprise. Even a big tiger is not in the same weight class.
What if it was like a bantam-weight polar bear versus a tiger?
[Laughter] A bantam-weight polar bear and a really big tiger, I think the tiger would probably win that. Cats are extremely well designed predators.
You mentioned the horses, and I did actually want to talk about that because obviously if it’s a Mongolian-style culture, horses play a huge role in the society. Could you just talk a little bit about the role of horses in this book?
Well, they’re absolutely necessary to the livelihood of these people. If you don’t have a horse, you’re dead. First of all, I am incredibly fortunate in that my editor and my very good friend and frequent co-author, Sarah Monette, are both horsewomen, and while I have worked in a stable and I have worked around horses, I haven’t been around them extensively in twenty years. I had the backup of people who actually knew horses very well and could tell me when I was making a mistake, when I was goofing something up.
What’s an example of something that you might goof up without the horse consultants?
One of the magic ponies gives birth to a foal at one point in the second book, and I had done a whole bunch of research on horse labor and how it works, but my editor went through and corrected like five or six tiny little mistakes that added up to a big mistake, and increased my verisimilitude massively. Occasionally she would point out things like, “Well, a horse wouldn’t do this,” or “A horse wouldn’t react this way in this situation.” Horse psychology is interesting because all of the other domestic animals with which we have real partnerships, like dogs and cats, are predators, or at least omnivores in the case of dogs, and the psychology of an herbivore is very different from the psychology of a scavenger or an omnivore. Their entire brains are structured differently, and having Beth Meacham, my editor, to remind me of those moments, when she would point out, “The horse is acting like a dog here. You need to fix that and make her act like a horse.”
Just reading reviews, a lot of people really loved this pony character that you were mentioning. Could you just talk about a horse like an actual character that people connect with even though it doesn’t have any lines in the book?
The thing to remember is there are four horses that are at least secondary characters that have a fair amount of screen time, and their personality and actions have some impact on what happens in the story, and some of it is just remembering that they’re not all the same. They’re characters. They do have different personalities. There’s one mare who is a little flightier and snappier than the other. There’s Bansh, the magic pony, who’s sarcastic. And having worked around horses, horses do have a sense of humor, and when we talk about a human being having a horsey sense of humor, it’s a very accurate description because horses really delight in pranks and prat falls and making the monkey look stupid. We had one mare at the stable I worked at where you had to be very careful about walking behind her stall because she wouldn’t kick, but she liked to pee on people, and mares pee backwards like cats, and they can get some actual distance. [Laughter] That is not a splash zone you want to be in. So this particular horse is a little bit sarcastic, and especially since none of the human protagonists of the books realize for like the first 300 pages that they’re dealing with a slightly supernatural animal here. I was having a great deal of fun with having them invent justifications for whatever had gone on. It was also kind of fun because occasionally she could serve as . . . you know, the thing about all the problems with The Dark Knight Rises and all the various plot holes and complaints that people had, and then there was the one, “Well, how does he get back from the middle of nowhere with no money to Gotham City when it’s been walled off?” Well, he’s Batman! There were a couple of moments in the book where I had the great fun of, “How do we get out of this? Well, the pony is Batman.” But you have to set that up before you can use it. You don’t get that for free.
Speaking of movies like that, and possibly problems with movies like that, I recently watched you and Scott Lynch reviewed The Hobbit Part Two while drunk.
Oh dear, I think I’m still hung-over.
[Laughter] It sounded like it. Do you want to talk about what that was and how that came about?
Our buddy, Pat Rothfuss, has this little, tiny charity event he does every year (that was irony) called Worldbuilders, where he raises a whole bunch of money for Heifer International which is an absolutely great . . . I’m 100% behind this charity. Basically, what they do is they buy livestock for economically challenged people in farming communities, and teach them how to tend to that livestock, and in doing so attempt to create wealth for the entire community. Worldbuilders accepts donations and then has stretch goals in a sort of Kickstarter-like fashion. Scott and I were asked to provide a stretch goal. We were thinking about it and thinking about it, like, “Oh, god, what can we do?” It’s supposed to be something whimsical or fun or ridiculous, and at some point, I think we had just gotten back from seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and being somewhat disappointed, like many of our peers, somewhat feeling a little letdown. And one of us said, “We could just do an audio review of The Hobbit.” And the other one said, “I’d have to be drunk.”
So we emailed Mariah, who is the person who runs Worldbuilders for Pat, and we said, “What do you think of this?” And she’s like, “Oh my god, do it. And provide cocktail recipes.” So we did. There were even more cocktail recipes in the original draft, each more whimsical and ridiculous than the last. I think The Smaug was my favorite, which is a shot of Goldschläger drunk while it’s on fire. We do not recommend actually trying this.
It’s funny, I haven’t seen The Desolation of Smaug because I didn’t like the first Hobbit movie at all, but after it came out we had Corey Olsen on the show, he’s the Tolkien professor, and he gave an amazing defense of it. He was like the F. Lee Bailey of the Hobbit movie. I’d be curious to see what he has to say about The Desolation of Smaug because you guys were not big fans, definitely.
No. I really was able actually to forgive a lot of the first one. There were many, many things about the first one that I liked; there was some stuff I didn’t like. But the second one, I didn’t just feel it was a failure on an adaptation level, I felt like it was a failure on a narrative level, like as its own thing it didn’t work. Too many luge rides on molten gold.
One thing I really wanted to ask you about is, as a teenager, I was absolutely obsessed with the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game.
Oh my god.
I was just looking at your Wikipedia page, and according to that, your first ever short story publication was in Amberzine 11.
It’s not actually my first short story publication. There were some other earlier ones. (One of which I disavowed because it was a really terrible story. We don’t talk about that.) I played Amber DRPG for a long time and ran a campaign and attended a number of Ambercons. Met my ex-husband at an Ambercon, actually. Still have an enormous number of friends in that community, and the hysterical thing is the number of professional writers who have come out of that tiny little Ambercon community.
Who are some of the other ones?
There’s Doug Hulick, L. Jagi Lamplighter . . . of course, now I’m going to forget.
We interviewed Jim Butcher, and he got his start doing an Amber online kind of thing.
It’s not really so much a gaming system as a vague framework, and I think that was what made it really excellent for those of us who just wanted an excuse to get together and play make-believe with our friends.
What about your story “The Devil You Don’t”?
Now I’m going to out myself as the giant nerd I am because the character who I later repurposed as a protagonist in her own non-Amber world, Muire, started off as one of my Amber characters. That particular story is basically a character contribution. As you know, but I’m explaining it to the audience, one of the ways that an Amber campaign works and that you get more points for your character is by doing some sort of “character contribution,” and I was writing little short stories for my game master. In this particular story, this character rides into a Wild West town and gets embroiled in basically a mash up of the plots of the American murder ballads “Duncan and Brady” and “Stagger Lee.” It’s Roger Zelazny by way of Sergio Leone.
What did that turn into when you made it non-Amber?
The character. I actually fairly often repurpose stuff from games I’ve run in completely different ways into fiction. That character wound up being recast from a minor third generation Amberite, I think she was a granddaughter of Llewella if I remember correctly, being recast from that role to being the littlest Valkyrie who survived Ragnarök because she panicked and fled the battlefield and is now stuck wandering around a post-apocalyptic, post-cyberpunk universe in All the Windwracked Stars and its sequel novels.
You said you have other characters that people might recognize that are drawn from your gaming sessions?
Oh sure, the basic idea of the character of Jenny Casey from the Hammered books came from a Cyberpunk 2020 game, along with several of her co-characters/supporting characters. The book itself is very much not a Cyberpunk 2020 setting, but I put a lot of time into developing my player characters and NPCs, and sometimes it’s nice to give them a little life beyond the end of whatever gaming system they were in. Jacob Dust, who’s a character in the book Dust, surprisingly enough, was the antagonist of this weird Amber/Courts of Chaos play-by-email game that I ran back in the 1990s, and I had so much fun with him that I didn’t want to give him up. Basically, I’m a gigantic nerd.
Well, you’ve come to the right podcast.
[Laughter] I’m an enormous nerdy nerd nerd, and I keep reusing my player characters and favorite NPCs because I love them and don’t want to let them go.
Another thing I wanted to talk to you about was, I was reading over your blog for the past year or so, and when I joined the Science Fiction Writers of America, I logged into the SFWA forums for the first time.
I’m so sorry.
I was so repulsed by all the vitriol that I literally never logged in again. I was struck that you had kind of a similar experience.
Apparently the old SFWA forums have been spun off. They’re the ones at sff.net, which is where a lot of the toxicity got concentrated, I think. No longer part of SFWA, they are no longer SFWA forums. They are simply a bulletin board system and SFWA does not endorse or sponsor them anymore. The new SFWA forums on the sfwa.org site are, I understand now, being a little more closely moderated, and there are a number of people who are attempting to create a more collegial, less toxic environment there. As you know, I am a huge proponent of the positive changes that have been going on in SFWA over the last five years in attempting to make it a more welcoming environment. But from my blog, I mean, my apology to George Martin is I assume the entry that you’re talking about.
I actually was just this morning holding a copy in my hand of the shiny, new, post-kerfuffle SFWA bulletin, and it looks amazing. It’s suddenly full of articles on how to manage your social media presence, and effective strategies for self-promotion, and effective strategies for self-publishing, and how to negotiate the career line between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Suddenly it’s like there’s useful information in there. It’s amazing what a change it is. So I think that we’re moving in the right direction.
Do you maybe want to explain for listeners why you were apologizing to George R.R. Martin?
The reason I was apologizing to George Martin is that when I first joined SFWA, I too went to the SFWA forums—this was the old SFWA forums, back before there was a new SFWA forums—and I started talking to people, and trying to learn my way, and somebody on the forums asked the question, “Why aren’t young writers joining SFWA?” I’m like, “Well, I know the answer to that.” I was thirty-three at the time, and I didn’t know any better. I said, “Well, the reason that young writers aren’t joining SFWA is because SFWA has a reputation among my . . .” —For those of you listening, a young writer is anybody under forty-five, honestly, because it takes ten years to get to the point with your skill where you’re professionally competitive, so if you start writing seriously when you get out of college, you’re going to be lucky to be breaking in as a novel writer by the time you’re in your early thirties, which is exactly what happened to me and what happens to a lot of people. There are a few annoying geniuses who break in in their twenties, like my boyfriend. We give them a lot of hell.
This is Scott Lynch, just in case people don’t know that.
Scott Lynch, yes. The awesome Scott Lynch. I’m sorry, I was ranting.
So I said, “Well, the reason that a lot of young writers don’t want to join SFWA is because a lot of the writers in my cohort are women, people of color, or queer people, or trans-people, or feel marginalized, and there is a perception among them that SFWA is not friendly to marginalized groups.” There were two distinct responses. There were a number of people who were incredibly kind to me and really supportive and very sensible and listened to what I had to say, and even if they didn’t agree with me, were like, “Okay, you are reporting what you hear, and this is a valid opinion, even if it’s not my experience of SFWA.” Among those people were Harry Turtledove and Tamora Pierce, in particular, that I recall. This was almost ten years ago now. Other people were also extremely kind to me. I just remember almost being moved to tears by both of them.
And then there were a whole bunch of people who basically just didn’t want to hear it. I engaged in the traditional science fiction writer pastime of quitting SFWA in a huff. I heard later that year or the next year on George Martin’s Livejournal, he was talking about SFWA and said, “This is the reason why people should join.” And I said, “These are the reasons why I’m not a member.” And he attempted to educate me, and I was still too butt-hurt to be moved, essentially. And in the intervening eight or nine years, I have come to realize that he was absolutely correct, that there are a lot of good, valid reasons to join SFWA, and that the way to change it is to get involved and be the change you want to see. It took me eight years to grow up enough to make a public apology, but oh well, live and learn.
We’re running a little short on time here. Do you just want to highlight some of the other projects you’ve got going on? Stories, books, whatever.
Emma Bull and I are currently hard at work on the series finale of Shadow Unit, which is a serialized, online, quasi-realtime, quasi-interactive, episodic narrative that she and I and six or seven other writers have been doing since 2007, and we’re coming up to the big finish. There are two more episodes now, and a lot of things are going to blow up. All available for free at shadowunit.org or you can get the first ebook for free, and the others, I think, are $2.99 at your favorite online ebook retailer. I have just handed in a book called Karen Memory which is a Wild West steampunk novel starring the heroic hookers of a city that is not quite Seattle and not quite San Francisco in the 1870s. That’s so much fun. This is one of those books where I was giggling to myself as I was writing it.
I think our producer, John Joseph Adams, would want me to mention that you have a story coming out in his Dead Man’s Hand Weird West anthology.
Yes, which is actually the story that grew into the novel Karen Memory; that story is “Madam Damnable’s Sewing Circle.”
Sarah Monette and I are working on the long-delayed third book in the Iskryne series. The first book was A Companion to Wolves. This one is called An Apprentice to Elves. Sarah had some health problems and the book has been delayed three or four years, but we’re a fifth of the way done with the first draft. This is very promising. I’m very excited. And I just sold two space operas to Gollancz, which should be out starting in 2016, and they’re sort of Big Idea, Iain Banks-y, and high-risk galactic exploration books with aliens.
I’m sure you know, since this is a podcast, a lot of our listeners might be interested to check out the SF Squeecast, which you’re a regular cast member of. What’s been going on with Squeecast lately?
New format this year, actually. We used to do a sort of show-and-tell format, where everybody brought something awesome to talk about. The Squeecast is a podcast that is myself, Lynne Thomas, Michael Thomas, Seanan McGuire, Cat Valente, and Paul Cornell, and various guest stars. The object of the Squeecast is to talk positively about stuff we love rather than being all critical and negative, because we can do that on Twitter.
Or YouTube! But to just really get excited and talk about awesome stuff in the best geek fashion, and we were doing a sort of show-and-tell format for two years. This year we’re shaking it up and doing more of a panel discussion of awesome stuff. So, we’ve talked about our Hugo nominations. These are the things I really loved in the last year. And since we were a two-time Hugo-winning podcast, we have recused ourselves so it doesn’t become the “Best Squeecast Award for Best Squeecast.” So obviously everybody should be voting for you this year.
Unfortunately, since we’re a professional podcast, we’re not eligible in the podcasting category. But they can nominate us for Best Related Work, but that’s a rough category.
That is a rough category. That’s tooth-and-nails clawing up a pile of corpses. “Best everybody we don’t have an award for.” Well, I tried.
I appreciate that. We’re pretty much out of time here, so I’m going to thank very much Elizabeth Bear for joining us on the show.
Thank you, David.
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