VanderMeer: Annihilation

I originally planned this Sci-Fi Saturday post as a positive review of the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, but Burns really nailed it about plans “gang aft agley.” I’ll tell you right now I bailed about halfway through the second book because I wasn’t enjoying the read, was utterly bored by the story, and had found VanderMeer’s writing style annoying from the beginning.

So this isn’t a positive review, but I’m willing to credit much of the lack of connection on my taste, both with regard to content and to writing style. The author and the trilogy are held in high regard, and I don’t at all dispute the quality of the storytelling. It’s just not for me.

His Wiki page says he’s compared to Borges and Kafka (which seems apt), and I’ve never cared that much for their writing, either.

The truth is, I’m not a big fan of literary surrealism. I’m usually suspicious of the stink of fish oil. Surrealists emote into their art, and I’m never sure whether any skill or talent is involved. Emoting is trivial and easy; animals do it. It’s craft and talent I revere, and along those lines I think some surrealists are counting on an Emperor’s New Clothes sort of thing (and I love being that kid).

Appreciating ability should, I suppose, incline me towards writers like VanderMeer, but then we’re back to my distaste for literary surrealism. I’m more open to it in visual art forms (although surrealist dance tests that tolerance). All visual art is more expressed emotion than narrative; it’s surreal narrative that I have trouble with. (That tends to include movies despite their visual nature.)

I admit the trouble is all mine. I just don’t see the point of having to listen to or read a narrative that doesn’t connect intellectuallythat isn’t really a narrative — but is supposed to invoke feels in me. The confusion of life is one of the things I read to escape. I don’t need it, or want it, from my stories.

Call me provincial, but I want characters I can understand. I don’t have to identify with them, but I want to understand them and their actions. Characters in surreal narratives often seem random to me and not real. It’s interesting in art, as cubism or abstraction of the human form, but I don’t enjoy it in a narrative. It makes reading work, not pleasure.

All of which can be overlooked, forgiven, even embraced, if the author tells an engaging story with a satisfying arc. Some mystery or ambiguity to leave the reader thinking is fine, but the meal has to fulfill. When it doesn’t, it becomes a stylized imitation — nuevo cuisine.

What I decided halfway through book two of this trilogy is that, firstly, I wasn’t enjoying the flavors that much to begin with, but secondly, I was increasingly doubting a satisfying resolution. (A correspondent who read all three indicated my doubt was well-grounded.)

Two other factors lead to bailing. Firstly (or thirdly, I guess), the realization the story was more modern-day fantasy horror than science fiction, and I’m picky about fantasy. Humor is important. A good narrative is important. Good characters are important. A ripping good yarn is important. None of those elements are present here. Lastly, the half of book two I read was all talk and flashbacks, no action. Nothing happened!

It takes a lot for me to bail on a book once I get into it. Especially if I’m at least a book into a series. I managed to read all five of the Stephen Baxter Long Earth books (but wasn’t particularly glad I did). I got through the first of the Becky Chambers Wayfarers books before bailing (I really didn’t care for it). Not sure if I’ll read the third book in the Lindsay Ellis Noumena series (I loved book one; book two hugely disappointed). I’m still down with the S.L. Huang Cas Russell series, though; I’ve liked all three so far.

§

Three books comprise the Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, all published in 2014. I admire his strategy of releasing all three books in short order (over eight months). Science fiction fans have long gnashed their teeth waiting for the next installment of some series (Martin’s Game of Thrones perhaps setting a record in that area, but it’s not new to us).

The first book was adapted into the 2018 movie, Annihilation, with Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodreguez, and Tuva Novotny. The movie is absolutely a case of a film adaptation rising above its source material. It captures the moody surreal flavor of the book but contains a coherent generally satisfying narrative. And what it lacks in ripping good yarn-ness, it makes up for in sheer visual appear; it’s worth seeing just to see it.

And, honestly, for all my kvetching, and in spite of a writing style I don’t enjoy, the first book was okay. I was feeling mostly positive about the trilogy after reading it and looked forward to book two.

But book two has no action, does have a major thread about office politics, repeats many of the same protagonist beats with a character weirdly similar to the one in the first book (in terms of being an unlikeable mental mess), and did I mention has no action! And absolutely nothing to move the story along (let alone provide any answers).

Maybe there’s a payoff in the second half, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out. I didn’t care about the characters, didn’t foresee much satisfaction, and wasn’t enjoying the ride. … Felicia, I’m out.

§

The story is about Area X, a mysterious impenetrable zone, roughly 70 miles by 80 miles in size, that appears in an unnamed coastal area. Its origin and purpose are unknown. When the first book begins, the zone has existed for about 30 years.

In the movie the five-woman crew, the supposed 12th expedition sent to explore, just walk into the “shimmer” — named for the visual effect. In the book, there is no visual effect, but anything that touches the boundary disappears and is never seen again. There is an equally mysterious portal (with mysterious swirling lights) that is the only entryway.

A big aspect of the book is that the four-woman crew are known only as “psychiatrist,” “biologist,” “anthropologist,” and “surveyor.” The book floats a rationale about labels forcing focus on function whereas names are attached to complicated freighted histories seen as a distraction. And as possible information for the unknown putative “enemy” in the zone if said enemy can read human minds (and events suggest that, yeah, maybe that’s a good precaution).

Not that any of their precautions have done a bit of good. Over the 30 years there have been lots of expeditions that tried many different things hoping to, if not get some answers, at least survive. That the book/movie crew is (only) the “12th” expedition is a morale-boosting lie. In fact, this crew has been hypnotized to not notice some of the more disturbing aspects of the situation (as well as to help them not panic).

The first book is from biologist’s point of view. In fact, it’s framed as a retelling of events. Earlier expeditions were lost, sometimes in horrific ways, but members of the most recent one returned. Mysteriously. They just suddenly showed up (although no one saw them pop in) in locations well-known to them, usually their homes. They can (or will) give no account of how they got there, and they have almost nothing to report about their time in the zone (“it was fine; everything was nice”).

In fact, biologist’s husband was on that earlier expedition, and he just showed up one evening in their home. Later these returned team members developed sudden cancers and died. The biologist’s husband died (in the book; in the movie they end up together). People who knew them before described the returned ones as “not all there.”

§

So book one is the biologist’s retelling of the “12th” expedition. She reappeared in a vacant lot that she loved (for reasons). The police found her, so she ended up back under “care” at Area X facilities.

Book two involves John Rodriguez, who goes by “Control” (thus mirroring the first book’s protagonist known by a label not a name; deep). He’s former field operative sent in to fix the Area X organization, which is apparently crumbling because no progress has been made, the zone is just sitting there not taking over the world, budgets are shrinking, and everyone is demoralized. Great plot for a gripping adventure.

What bugs me identically about both characters is how much mental churning goes on. Dialogs take forever to read, because every line of dialog triggers three or four paragraphs of agonizing mental digression or some flashback. I sometimes had to go back and read just the quoted lines to get a sense of the conversation.

And everything they see or think has so much portent and meaning, usually something depressing or fearful. The writing is over-detailed and downright claustrophobic. There is so much over-thinking and over-analyzing that there’s no narrative flow or energy. Sure as hell no fun or whimsy in sight.

With a lot of this tortured stream of consciousness stuff I find myself thinking, “OMG, get over yourself!” When it comes to all this personal BS, the thing is, I really don’t care. We all got stuff; yours isn’t special. In fact, this stuff is as old as humans and stories. I suppose it’s exactly the sort of thing that attracts some readers.

To me it’s just more of the same thing I get from real life, so I’ve never seen the point. I read science fiction for ideas and adventures and to see intelligent minds react to and handle interesting problems. If I want reality, it’s right outside and all over my newsfeeds. I read to get away from it!

Bottom line, thumbs down on this one, a Meh! rating, although I confess it might be entirely due to my personal taste.

§ §

Speaking of bailing on series (and of waiting forever for subsequent books), long ago I was reading the Robert Jordan Wheel of Time series, and it’s one of the first such I gave up on after deciding I’d lost interest. I think I got as far as book eight or nine, but if I recall correctly, it was book six that planted the seed of doubt, because it was a big fat book in which nothing happened.

Stay unsurreal, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

17 responses to “VanderMeer: Annihilation

  • Wyrd Smythe

    The new grammar demon in Microsoft Edge keeps telling me that in the sentence, “So this isn’t a positive review,…”, there should be a comma after the “So” because it sees it as an introductory word. But I don’t — “So this is…” is an atom phrase, so give it a rest Microsoft! 😀

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Just as well I bailed on the trilogy. I’ve had FKA USA on hold at the library for many weeks, and it just became available, and now I’m free to start reading it immediately.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I recently discovered a TV/Movie review YouTube channel that I like a lot, The Critical Drinker. He has a strong point of view, and I’ve found that he and I agree on a lot of topics (often in places it’s rare that I find others who think the same). Here’s his take on the movie adaptation of Annihilation:

    I liked the movie better than he did, but I didn’t have the expectations he did and took it on its own merits. As SF movies go, it was okay and worth seeing, and it was (IMO) a lot more enjoyable than the book.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I find the acclaim this trilogy receives puzzling. Its glowing reviews were the reason I originally noticed it. It was a stark reminder that just because something is acclaimed by the literati doesn’t mean it’s for me. Even back then I was aware of that fact, yet found the Amazon preview of the beginning of the first book compelling.

    I agree about the writing style, particularly all the introspection during conversations. And yet, I put up with it to varying degrees in other books. My opinion of the trilogy would probably be pretty different if the ending had had some kind of resolution.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I don’t know if you watched the video by The Critical Drinker, but he frames his review of the movie in much the same way: It was presented to him almost unanimously as intelligent and excellent, but after watching it he begs to differ. I try to ignore hype and reviews until after I’ve seen or read something, so my expectations were lower. I knew the movie was acclaimed (and liked it better than Drinker did) but didn’t realize there was a book until a friend mentioned reading it. I had no idea VanderMeer or the series was a Big Thing until I looked at his Wiki page the other day. Sadly, even lower expectations didn’t help. 😮

      I thought of Dune several times reading this, and some others with a lot of mental churning as well. Firstly, a good story grants a lot of latitude and forgiveness. Secondly, not all X is Y, some introspection or inner monologue is okay, some is even good, a plus really only available in text (voiceover just isn’t the same). To my eye, what VanderMeer does, along with many other literary authors, is over-amplify and over-describe the meanings and implications of every thought and observation. And those associations tend to be weird, dark, fearful, or otherwise negative. I guess it’s literary tone or something. But, as I think we’ve discussed, I tend to favor literary transparency over literary style.

      You, me, and Drinker, makes three who found no there there. As I mentioned in the post, I’m suspicious of surrealism, especially narrative surrealism. I do wonder if some of these Emperors aren’t running around in their skivvies. I’ve tried three times to read Infinite Jest, and it just doesn’t do anything for me. OTOH, some are legit. I’ve mentioned author Paul Beatty, who has a way with language and humor, and who tells an engaging story with interesting characters. I’m hoping this FKA USA by the pseudonymous Reed King is on the Beatty side of things. As I mentioned before, I’m hoping for Hunter S. Thompson meets Douglas Adams. 🤞

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        After watching his Arcane review, I sampled a couple of other videos from the Drinker. I don’t think I’m going to watch any others. I find him hard to take, even when I agree with him, and I’m not much for those types of videos anyway.

        I recalled Dune being a slog when I first read it as a teenager, although I’ve been surprised by how well it flows for me now. But I read a lot of other stuff where paragraphs of introspection happen during conversations. It’s not a style I care for. Mentally I have the characters in that scene frozen in place while the introspection plays out. It feels like it bogs the story down.

        That’s not to say there shouldn’t be character introspection in stories. But it seems like it works better when it’s separate from the dialog, maybe while the character is doing some physical chore or something.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        🤣😂 I think it says a lot about a key difference between us that I get a kick out of Drinker’s videos even when I disagree with him. (He really, really hates the Resident Evil movies, for one, but they’re one of my little guilty pleasures.) He is extreme, I’ll grant you, and that goes back to what I’ve said before about flamboyant people who indulge in performance art. He presents his opinions in a very aggressive and exaggerated way, but it’s just part of the show. Obviously strong flavors aren’t for everyone. (It shouldn’t be hard to believe that I’m quite familiar with the negative reaction some do have! 😁)

        I have that same image of people frozen in mid-conversation while the POV goes off on some introspective tangent. It does happen that something someone says invokes an instant memory and associations, but it all happens in a flash whereas the reader has to slog through the paragraphs. I can retrofit an understanding of memory flashes over the scene, but I’m still really bugged by how it breaks the flow of conversation. It does bog the scene down. Glacially. I’m in total agreement that should be saved for times when the character is alone. They can review a conversation they had and introspect all they like.

        Tony Hillerman, and now his daughter Anne, write those Navajo Tribal Police murder mysteries, and the nature of the territory — wide open spaces; vast distances — means the characters do a lot of driving to various destinations. That alone time in the car allows for some nice introspection scenes. When there are two in the car, it makes for natural very focused conversation scenes where the writer doesn’t have to worry about business for the characters to do while talking. The scenery outside and small mechanics of driving the car provide enough sidebar during the conversation to make interesting.

  • Michael

    I’ll be interested to know how FKA USA treats you. I don’t know anything about it, but the article you linked to made it sound interesting.

    I’ve read two of VanderMeer’s books, Dead Astronauts and Borne. I enjoyed them both, but perhaps the way I have enjoyed some works that tend towards literary fiction–meaning, works where the use of language and style and a certain tickling of the subconscious often feature over plot or clarity. I think VanderMeer writes well, but definitely this isn’t plot or action based type of stuff. And I can’t speak for these, as I haven’t read them. To be honest, Dead Astronauts was not an easy read at all. But there was something to it that, for me, kept me moving along. I haven’t tried to consciously make sense of it all, but I think there’s more there than meets the eye at times.

    The line between literary and genre fiction is an interesting one, to be sure. In searching for other reviews of this series I came across an interview of VanderMeer on The Rumpus, which is definitely an outlet for literary fiction. You probably won’t, for instance, find Neal Stephenson interviewed there. But no judgment, honestly. I love books on both sides of the line… I just read The Milkman by Anna Burns, which won the Booker in 2018, and it’s fantastic. (Beatty won the Booker!) It may or may not be your thing–it’s hard to say–but I thought it was a good mix of worlds.

    I may check this Annihilation series out, actually. I’m curious, I guess. As an aside, I read Wendig’s Zeroes earlier this year and really enjoyed that one!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Oops, sorry, this fell through the cracks! When you posted it, I assumed you’d probably circle back to that entropy post, so I delayed responding… and forgot! (Which has been happening more and more. I’m a bit concerned about my memory these days. Thoughts flee a bit too easily lately.)

      Mike and I were talking about this Southern Reach trilogy (he read them all), and we seem to agree that it was the story being more horror-fantasy than science fiction that was the biggest issue. That’s just not a genre we enjoy that much (I, perhaps, slightly more than he). There was also my growing sense (which Mike confirmed) that there would be no satisfying conclusion to the story.

      I enjoyed the first book enough that I was looking forward to the others, but the small annoyance I had with the moody opaque writing style — and then the sense the second book was repeating beats from the first (similar protagonists and modes) and wasn’t going to explain a damn thing — grew so much during the second that I gave up halfway through.

      I’ve heard that Dead Astronauts is a tough read. If you’ve liked VanderMeer’s other books, my guess is you’d like (at the very least) Annihilation. What you’d make of the second book, I’m less certain. (And, of course, no clue about the third.)

      I looked at the Wiki article for The Milkman, and I don’t think it’s a book for me. Psychological drama is so not my thing. I appreciate Beatty’s skill as a writer, and his melodic use of words, but a big part of the draw for me is my interest in, and support of, Black voices and point of view.

      Zer0es was a lot of fun! I also read the sort-of sequel, Invasive, which is a very different story (albeit also about world domination). Hollis Copper appears briefly as a background character, but the story involves a new cast. This one is about gene hacking.

  • “King”: FKA USA | Logos con carne

    […] I posted recently that I didn’t get much from Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (in fact, I couldn’t even finish the second book). I’m two-for-two now. I didn’t get much from FKA USA, either (I did like it a little better, though). […]

  • diotimasladder

    I think I know what you mean about literary surrealism. I can take it in small amounts, sometimes I don’t mind it in short stories, but I don’t like it as a replacement of plot and character. I like for there to be a reason for it and I want the purpose of it to be perfectly clear, otherwise I’ll abandon the reading. (I think I’m more prone to abandon books than you are, although I do sometimes surprise myself—Infinite Jest, for instance. God. Still can’t believe I finished the damned thing. I knew I was gonna feel cheated by the ending and still read it anyway. Double cheat!)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha, I can relate! I’ve tried three times to read Infinite Jest and given up each time. It just leaves me stone cold. Zero engagement, and I can’t even see what attracts people to it. My theory is it’s a kind of SF for people who don’t read SF, that it appeals to that same desire for imagination that five decades of reading SF has so well slaked in me. I also find it interesting that most of those who place the book at the center of their literary universe encountered it in college (or even earlier) and found it revolutionary. I think there are a number of works that can grab like that. The kind of canonical one, of course, is Tolkien’s LotR. I think it has to do with reading something very different and very striking at an impressionable age when one hasn’t read that sort of writing before. Game changer.

      But I’ve been reading imaginative fiction since early grade school, so IJ seemed very mundane to me and, as you say, literary surrealism to no real point than showing off.

    • Michael

      DL and Wyrd,

      This was the year I read Infinite Jest and I have to say that I genuinely enjoyed it. Not to say that everyone should or shouldn’t. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a book for everyone. But when I consider David Foster Wallace’s talent, I don’t find the book to be pretentious or anything like that. I mean . . . this is how the dude wrote! In essays, probably in correspondence, in novels and short stories. He was just at a genius level with the craft of language and expression, as well as human observation I think. And like many geniuses… he was troubled, deeply concerned about the conditions of our time, faced tremendous difficulties, etc.

      But he was so creative (for me)! His commentary on society in general was insightful, I thought. He got the futuristic entertainment thing right conceptually, but focused on discs instead of streaming. It doesn’t change the essence of his commentary, I don’t think. His observations on substance abuse and human nature, the pressure to perform, the value (or not) of achievement, the absurdities of certain post-modern implications, the preoccupation with artificial or fantastic realities (the movie that causes people to ignore real life completely), etc., were all couched within a style that just cracked me up (and saddened me) page after page. The novel is loaded with content, so much so as to be nearly overwhelming I’d say.

      At any rate, I don’t know what is meant by literary surrealism here, Wyrd. I think the textbook definition is the inclusion of absurdly unrealistic developments: like a table turns into a turtle in the book’s “reality” and walks off, an animal talks and is sentient like a human, a character lifts a banana and it turns into a microphone in their hand, stuff like that.

      In the context of Infinite Jest, do you just mean that Wallace’s style is so over the top as to be absurd? I mean, I could see that. For me personally, it worked. But I can appreciate the perspective…

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Let me first be very clear that I intend no slight against Wallace’s ability at a writer. My take on IJ is 100% based on my personal taste. What I think your comment really brings into focus is a commonality between this discussion of fiction and your most recent post. I’m referring to the notion of the answers we get depending on the questions we ask.

        As you’ve said, authors write books for different reasons. And readers also have their own reasons. We ask different questions of fiction. What I’m seeing here is that you ask different questions of literature than I do. Our approaches differ (at least somewhat), so we see it differently.

        One reason I’m such a raging misanthrope is that I know more about people than I want to. I think we agree that all decent fiction explores the human condition. I’ve been a voracious reader all my life, so I’ve absorbed a lot of stories about how humans think and act. My crime — and I do view it somewhat that way — is a crushing disappointment towards the human race, and the very last thing I want in my life is a deep psychological dive into some human’s mind. I want you to understand that I’m actively repelled by such a thing.

        Let me be explicit. My sin is that part of my long-standing ethic is: Fuck people, most of them are a waste of skin, anyway. (Is it any wonder I’ve been single all my life?) I don’t know why I’m this way. I don’t seem able to change (because apparently it works for me on some level and I don’t want to). I’ve spent most of my life feeling like an alien archeologist trapped on a planet with an interesting but privative and generally very stupid species (though they have so much potential).

        Where I find succor is in stories about how high we can rise, about our best efforts. This is why I’ve always loved Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot and other towering intellects. These tell me what we can be, not because Holmes or Poirot could really exist, but because their authors conceived them. It takes a very smart author to write a very smart character. These stories make me feel not so alone on Earth.

        So, the things you cite loving in IJ hold no interest for me. I already know more about them than I want to (and they depress me because I’m not sure the human race can overcome that stuff, and so we’ll never go to the stars). I fully acknowledge two things: I’m the damaged one here. No question many of these authors are excellent at what they do and should be appreciated.

        Regarding literary surrealism, my definition might be a bit broad. One of my favorite high school English teachers was big on transparency of style. He insisted that writing should be as transparent as possible to let the content shine through. That the author shouldn’t be apparent. I do think style is valid, and any artist chooses how much to focus on style versus content. Some art is mostly style, and there’s not a single thing wrong with that. As a lover of stories, I’m not big on literary style, though. I’m not sure I even have the writing chops to fully appreciate it.

        But, anyway, I tend to see as surreal any story that isn’t well and firmly grounded in reality. I consider Paul Beatty’s writing surreal, for instance. He doesn’t go full-Kafka, but there is a tone of surrealism in his realities. Likewise IJ and Annihilation; it’s a tone thing for me.

      • Michael

        Thanks for the clarifications, Wryd. As to your statement, I want you to understand that I’m actively repelled by such a thing. I’ll just say: Got it. I can appreciate where you’re coming from, and certainly that we may appreciate different things in our reading as a result of our unique starting points. This is always the case, isn’t it? I often think no two readers read the same book! It’s a blend of how the work meets us, and we meet it, so we really never have exactly the same experience of any art form…

        As to your view on humanity, a part of shares this view. I think I’m more focused on the potential side of things, and am probably a bit more glass-half-full in this department. A large part of my life is understanding how and why we think and behave in the ways that we do, and what the impediments are to thinking and behaving differently (e.g. “better”). That’s a story for another day perhaps, and not intended as a diminishment or push back on your own sentiments. (But the perceptual stance of “separateness” I refer to often, and which you indicated was unclear, is at the root of this for me, and I am thinking I may expound on this in the future.)

        I’m back to my 9-to-5 tomorrow so will regrettably have a bit less time for these fun asides. But less time isn’t zero time! More to come in the year ahead!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        In fact, I think to some extent no two people experience the same reality, so our take on stories and all art, yeah, is very personal. Recently I learned an interesting turn of phrase, someone was said to be a “spherical bastard” — a bastard from any angle. I love the notion, but I think few interesting things are “spherical” in that sense (the same from all points of view). We see life from our own perspective through the filter of our life’s experience.

        I envy those with a more positive take on people, the focus on the portion of water, not the portion of emptiness. It must be nice. I remember an episode of House, MD, where the patient’s rare disease shut down their social filter resulting in his uttering every thought, even those nasty ones some/most/all people have even about their loved ones. It nearly destroyed his relationship with his wife and daughter. The episode seemed to imply some people don’t even have those thoughts, and I’ve wondered about that ever since. Are some people’s minds really that utterly positive? Or is their dark side just that repressed?

        I’m more like that episode of Batman where Scarecrow uses a new fear drug on the Batman. The drug supposedly brings out all the darkest thoughts about ourselves, our self demons, with crippling results. And it seems the Batman is utterly undone, which puts Scarecrow off-guard (thinking he’s succeeded), but the Batman then springs into action. He was faking the reaction because he’s completely aware of his demons and quite in touch with them, thank you very much. That, I think, would be me. I know who I am. I don’t always like it, but I know who I am. (I take some heart from that I’ve always invariably been a happy loving drunk. That’s my true inner nature, but the way the world has reacted to me, like all my life, created a misanthropic counter-reaction self.)

        It would be interesting to compare our notions of what pursuit of a “better” life entails. I suspect it’s one place where we diverge quite a bit.

        I so do not miss the 9-to-5 world!! 😀

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