Posts Tagged ‘Astounding’

Erik’s Note: I recently composed this for my personal blog, Paperback Flash, but I figured it would also be interesting to readers of the official Planet Stories blog, since it’s about one of the most important books of one of our most important writers, C. L. Moore. Enjoy!

Judgment Night (1965)

Catherine Lucille Moore (1911 – 1987) was one of the finest fantasy and science fiction writers of the Pulp Era, contributing two characters of historical significance in the form of Jirel of Joiry, the first female sword & sorcery protagonist and Northwest Smith, a spacefaring scoundrel who very likely served as a template for Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Later, her collaborations with husband Henry Kuttner (often published under the byline Lewis Padgett) would go on to become bedrock classics of the genre. Moore is a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and her status as one of the grand masters of the pulps is a given.

I particularly enjoy her writing, which my friend Kenneth Hite once described as “Clark Ashton Smith on Cialis.” When I first encountered her lushly described, vivid prose, I immediately thought of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, though my reading in the last few years has traced this influence even farther back to Abraham Merritt, the giant of the early 20th century whose The Moon Pool and The Ship of Ishtar (among others) cast looming shadows over the Pulp Era. Moore’s use of language and many of her themes are perhaps best described as “Merrittesque,” though her stories often involve a sensual, in some cases barely disguised sexual element that makes them stand out from many of their staid contemporaries in the Pulp Era. Though her influences are clear, C. L. Moore is very much her own writer, and a great one at that.

Here’s an example of her writing style, in this case describing a gown specially designed for the lead character of Judgment Night, Juille, the heir to a powerful galactic empire in the days leading to its inevitable fall:

The best dress designer on Cyrille seemed to be a soft-voiced, willowy woman with the pink skin and narrow, bright eyes of a race that occupied three planets circling a sun far across the outskirts of the Galaxy. She exuded impersonal deftness. One felt that she saw no faces here, was aware of no personalities. She came into the room with a smooth, silent aloofness, her eyes lowered.

But she was not servile. In her own way the woman was a great artist, and commanded her due of respect.

The composition of the new gown took place before the mirrored alcove that opened from the bedroom. Helia, her jaw set like a rock, stripped off the smart military uniform which her mistress was wearing, the spurred boots, the weapons, the shining helmet. From beneath it a shower of dark-gold hair descended. Juille stood impassive under the measuring eyes of the newcomer, her hair clouding upon her shoulders.

Now she was no longer the sexless princeling of Lyonese. The steely delicacy was about her still, and the arrogance. But the long, fine limbs and the disciplined curves of her body had a look of waxen lifelessness as she stood waiting between the new personality and the old. She was aware of a certain embarrassed resentment, suddenly, at the step she was about to take. It was humiliating to admit by that very step that the despised femininity she had repudiated all her life should be important enough to capture now.

The quality of impassivity seemed to puzzle the artist, who stood looking at her thoughtfully.

“Is there any definite effect to be achieved?” she asked after a moment, speaking in the faintly awkward third person through which all employees upon Cyrille address all patrons.

Juille swallowed a desire to answer angrily that there was not. Her state of mind confused even herself. This was her first excursion into incognito, her first conscious attempt to be—feminine; she disdained that term. She had embraced the amazon cult too wholeheartedly to admit even to herself just what she wanted or hoped from this experiment. She could not answer the dresser’s questions. She turned a smoothly muscular shoulder to the woman and said with resentfulness she tried to conceal even from herself:

“Nothing … nothing. Use your own ingenuity.”

The dresser mentally shot a keen glance upward. She was far too well-trained actually to look a patron in the face; but she had seen the uniform this one had discarded, she saw the hard, smooth symmetry of the body and from it understood enough of the unknown’s background to guess what she wanted and would not request. She would not have worked her way up a long and difficult career from and outlying planet to the position of head designer on Cyrille if she had lacked extremely sensitive perception. She narrowed her already narrow eyes and pursed speculative lips. This patron would need careful handling to persuade her to accept what she really wanted.

“A thought came to me yesterday,” she murmured in her soft, drawling voice—she cultivated the slurred accent of her native land—”while I watched the dancers on Dullai Lake. A dark gown, full of shadows and stars. I need a perfect body to compose it on, for even the elastic paint of undergarments might spoil my effect.” This was not strictly true, but it served the purpose. Juille could accept the gown now not as romance personified, but as a tribute to her own fine body.

“With permission, I shall compose that gown,” the soft voice drawled, and Juille nodded coldly.

The dresser laid both hands on a section of wall near the alcove and slid back a long panel to disclose her working apparatus. Juille stared in frank enchantment and even Helia’s feminine instincts, smothered behind a military lifetime, made her eyes gleam as she looked. The dresser’s equipment had evidently been moved into place behind the sliding panel just before her entrance, for the tall rack at one end of the opening still presented what must have been the color-selection of the last patron. Through a series of level slits the ends of almost countless fabrics in every conceivable shade of pink showed untidily. Shelves and drawers spilled more untidiness. Obviously, this artist was great enough to indulge her whims even at the expense of neatness.

She pressed a button now and the pink rainbow slid sidewise and vanished. Into its place snapped a panel exuding ends of blackness in level parallels—satin that gleamed like dark water, the black smoke of gauzes, velvet so soft it looked charred, like black ash.

The dresser moved so swiftly and deftly that her work looked like child’s play, or magic. She chose an end of dull silk and reeled out yard after billowing yard through the slot, slashed it off recklessly with a razor-sharp blade, and like a sculptor modeling in clay, molded the soft, thick stuff directly upon Juille’s body, fitting it with quick, nervous snips of her scissors and sealing the edges into one another. In less than a minute Juille was sheathed from shoulder to ankle in a gown that fitted perfectly and elastically to her skin, outlining every curve of her body and falling in soft, rich folds about her feet.

The dresser kicked away the fragments of discarded silk and was pulling out now such clouds and billows of pure shadow as seemed to engulf her in fog. Juille almost gasped as the cloud descended upon herself. It was something too sheer for cloth, certainly not a woven fabric. The dresser’s deft hand touched lightly here and there, sealing the folds of cloud in place. In a moment or two she stepped back and gestured toward the mirror.

Juille turned. This tall unknown was certainly not herself. The hard, impersonal, perfect body had suddenly taken on soft, velvet curves beneath the thick soft fabric. All about her, floating out when she moved, the shadowy billows of dimness smoked away in drapery so adroitly composed that it seemed an arrogance in itself.

“And now, one thing more,” smiled the dresser, pulling out an untidy drawer. “This—” She brought out a double handful of sequins like flashing silver dust and strewed them lavishly in the folds of floating gauze. “Turn,” she said, and Juille was enchanted to see the tiny star points cling magnetically to the cloth except for a thin, fine film of them that floated out behind her and twinkled away to nothing in midair whenever she moved.

Juille turned back to the mirror. For a moment more this was a stranger whose face looked back at her out of shining violet eyes, a face with the strength and delicacy of something finely made of steel. It was arrogant, intolerant, handsome as before, but the arrogance seemed to spring now from the knowledge of beauty.

And then she knew herself in the mirror. Only the gown was strange, and her familiar features looked incongruous above it. For the first time in her life Juille felt supremely unsure of herself. Not even the knowledge that the very stars in the Galaxy were subject to her whim could help that feeling now. She drew a long breath and faced herself in the mirror resolutely.

So far, Planet Stories has reprinted collections of C. L. Moore’s two most popular characters, Jirel of Joiry in Black God’s Kiss and Northwest Smith in Northwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith. Reviews for both collections have been very positive, somewhat surprising for fiction that is closing in on being eight decades old.

A lot of the reviews highlight a specific weakness of her Jirel and Smith stories, a stylistic nuance that becomes much more pronounced when all of a given character’s adventures are collected in the same volume. The problem is this: Although Moore’s worlds are vividly realized, and her use of language and beauty of structure easily set these tales apart as classics, her classic characters don’t really do much of anything in the stories themselves. Rather, they watch as something very interesting happens to other people. They often emerge victorious against their enemies by tapping some inner strength or reserve, or taking some internal journey. Though Jirel comes armed with a sword and Northwest Smith packs his trusty heat gun, the weapons usually remain holstered and the stories are more psychological horror that action adventure.

Not so here, in Judgment Night which almost seems to have been written in reaction to that specific criticism. Far from a wallflower, Juille spends the last several chapters of the book literally blowing apart an entire planet with an unthinkably powerful super-gun. It’s a thrilling cat-and-mouse scene filled with carnage, collapsing buildings, and all sorts of entertaining mayhem.

Originally written as a two-part serial in 1943’s Astounding (edited by that titan of early SF, John W. Campbell, Jr.), Judgment Night came 10 years after Moore’s Weird Tales debut, when most of the Jirel and NWS stories were already behind her. It’s a transitional piece, of sorts, bridging the early era populated largely by her Jirel and Smith stories and her later material (much of it also published by Campbell) written in collaboration with her future husband, Henry Kuttner (the two were married in 1940, but this story shows very little if any Kuttner influence and has never been credited to him).

The legendary Gnome Press published a hardcover edition of Judgment Night in 1952, complete with an effective cover from Frank Kelly Freas. That edition also included the short stories “Paradise Street,” “Promised Land,” “The Code,” and “Heir Apparent,” a good selection of Moore’s non-series character, non-Kuttner material. The 1965 Paperback Library version I read (pictured above) lacks these stories, focusing only on the title tale.

Although I like the Gnome Press edition and the other tales included therein are worthy additions to Moore’s canon, Judgment Night easily stands on its own as a great classic of Pulp Era science fiction.


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John W. Campbell, Jr.

 Introduction to “John Campbell and the Modern SF Idiom”

by Ben Bova

 It saddens me to realize that an entire generation of science fiction writers and readers has now grown up without knowing John Campbell.

John W. Campbell Jr., as he insisted on being bylined, died in 1971. From 1937 until then, he was the towering figure in the field of science fiction. The following essay goes into some detail on that subject, so I will not try to justify my statement here.

 When Florida State University asked me to write a piece about Campbell for their Fantasy Review, I was flattered and delighted. A thousand memories of John flooded through my mind. I will burden you with only two of them:

 Scene 1: The lobby of a hotel that is hosting a science fiction convention. Dozens of fans and writers (many were both) milling around, talking, exchanging jokes, looking for the bar. John Campbell, editor of Analog magazine, is surrounded by a shining-faced group of worshipers. At this time, Analog was published by The Condé Nast Publications Inc., a very powerful New York-based magazine house.

 One young man worms his way through the crowd and says, with studied diffidence, “I wrote a science fiction story once. But I didn’t send it to you because I knew you’d reject it.”

 Campbell, an imposingly large man with broad shoulders and white hair crew-cut militarily flat, looms over the kid and says in a crack-of-doom voice: “And since when does The Condé Nast Publications Incorporated pay you to make editorial decisions for Analog?”

 The kid disappeared into the carpeting.

 John’s point was that if you took the trouble to write a story, he wanted you to send it to him. Let him judge if it’s good enough to be published. If he thought not, he would send you a detailed letter explaining his reasons – and giving you a hatful of ideas for new stories.

 Unfortunately the youngster did not stay around to get the explanation.

 Scene 2: A midtown Manhattan restaurant. John Campbell is taking six or seven (I forget the exact number) writers to lunch. John was fond of posing mental puzzlers; he liked to see how bright his writers were.

 He asks us: “In the year 1910 there were two railroad stations in the city of Boston. One of them was the largest railroad station in the United States. But as every proper Bostonian knew, it was not the largest railroad station in Boston.”

 Talk about challenges! We had to explain that conundrum. Over lunch. If memory serves, I believe it was Joanna Russ who finally cracked it. Think about that as you read about John W. Campbell Jr. There will never be another like him.  



Astounding May 1938

Astounding May 1938


When he died unexpectedly in 1971, John W. Campbell, Jr. was the towering editorial figure who had dominated the field of science fiction for more than three decades. In recent years, Campbell’s reputation has been eclipsed by the continuing evolution of the field. Even so, to a considerable extent modern science fiction is the creation of Campbell’s editorial genius. What we call science fiction today is a literature that reflects Campbell’s ideas of what the field ought to be.

 Forgotten in today’s dynamic, growing science fiction realm is the fact that it was Campbell, starting in 1937, who insisted on high-quality writing for science fiction stories. The first steps in leading science fiction out of the formulas and dreadful writing of the pulp magazine industry were taken – forcibly, at times – by John Campbell.

 The title of the magazine he edited from 1937 until his death reflects his own goals, and the evolution of the field. When the 24-year-old Campbell was given the editor’s job, starting with the December 1937 issue, the magazine was titled Astounding Stories. By February 1938 Campbell had changed the title to Astounding Science Fiction, and over the next twenty-two years insisted on cover type that emphasized “science fiction” and downplayed the melodramatic “Astounding.” Finally, in 1960, when publisher Street & Smith was bought out by The Condé Nast Publications, Campbell was at last allowed to changed the title to the one he had wanted for decades: Analog Science Fiction & Science Fact.

 Many contemporary writers think of Campbell as an eccentric who championed a variety of crank ideas, from dianetics to libertarianism. A chain smoker, he refused to believe the Surgeon General’s report on the links between smoking and heart disease – a refusal that may well have cost him his life. He was a great arguer, in the Socratic sense, and enjoyed nothing more than convincing a skeptical audience of his point of view.

His editorial crotchets, especially in his later years, are well remembered. Few now recall, however, that his primary goal – stated boldly early in his career and then more and more by implication as the years rolled by – was to fill his magazine with what he considered to be “good stories.”

How did Campbell define a “good story?” I believe he used three main criteria: technical background, mood, and writing quality.

 Clearly he insisted that the technical background of each story be based firmly on what is known of scientific fact and principles. In this, he set the basic rule of modern science fiction: the writer can invent anything so long as no one can demonstrate that it is physically impossible.

To cite one famous example of the result of Campbell’s policy, stories dealing with nuclear weapons began appearing in the pages of Campbell’s ”Astounding long before the first atomic bomb test at Alamogordo in 1945. The most famous of these was Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline,” published in May 1944. 

 “He stopped before the bomb, looked down at it. He nodded, ponderously…’Two cast-iron hemispheres, clamped over the orange segments of cadmium alloy…and a small explosive powerful enough to shatter the cadmium walls.Then…the powdered uranium oxide runs together in the central cavity. The radium shoots neutrons into this mass – and theU235 takes over from there. Right?'”

 Not exactly the way the first atomic bombs worked, but close enough so that the FBI investigated the genesis of Cartmill’s story, fearful of a security leak in the Manhattan Project.


The Thing (Who Goes There)

The Thing (Who Goes There?)


Consider the atomic bomb case again. More than four years before Cartmill’s description of an atomic bomb was published, Robert Heinlein wrote “Solution Unsatisfactory,” which appeared in the May 1941 ASF.


 “‘Well,’ I answered, ‘what of it? It’s our secret, the atomic bomb, and we’ve got the upper hand. The United States can put a stop to this war, and any other war. We can declare a Pax Americana, and enforce it.’ ‘Hm-m-m – I wish it were that easy. But it won’t remain our secret; you can count on that. It doesn’t matter how successfully we guard it; all that anyone needs is the hint…and then it’s just a matter of time until some other nation develops a technique to produce it. You can’t stop brains from working…


‘It’s like this: Once the secret is out – and it will be if we ever use the stuff – the whole world will be comparable to a room full of men, each armed with a loaded .45. They can’t get out of the room and each one is dependent on the good will of every other one to stay alive. All offense and no defense. See what I mean?'”

Heinlein (once described by Algis Budrys as “the hand of John Campbell’s mind”) correctly described the political implications of nuclear weaponry: the Cold War stalemate between the superpowers, the state of nuclear terror that held the world in its thrall for more than forty years.


Few critics have seen beyond the gadgetry in the pages Campbell edited to understand that ASF pioneered the way for stories dealing with the social, political and human consequences of new technology. Far from restricting the pages of ASF to “hard” science fiction, Campbell educated the readers – and writers! – to consider the “softer” sciences of sociology and politics, as well.


It is no secret that Campbell did prefer “up-beat” stories. He had little tolerance for weaklings or failures. His preference was based on his belief that the human animal is admirable, that rational thought -as exemplified by science and engineering – is our main method for dealing with the environment in which we find ourselves. He was certain that Man is the toughest critter in the forest, and to those who did not believeit, or who felt there is something wrong or evil in such an attitude, he showed scant patience.


In this, Campbell clearly fell into the ranks of the philosophical optimists. He would have laughed at the myth of Sysiphus and immediately started to sketch out a system of pulleys that would allow that tragic mythical figure to get his stone over the top of that damned hill.


Does this mean he automatically rejected “down-beat,” pessimistic stories? No, as a glance at Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (August 1954) will show.

In this story, a young woman stows away on a space ship carrying desperately-needed vaccine to a plague-stricken planet. She wants to reach her brother, who is one of the plague victims. The ship’s pilot, its only crew member, discovers the stowaway and realizes that her extra weight will prevent the ship from reaching its destination. He decides that the lives of millions of plague victims outweigh the life of the stowaway, and forces her out of the airlock, to die in the vacuum of space.

“A cold equation had been balanced and he was alone on the ship….It seemed, almost,that she still sat small and bewildered and frightened on the metal box beside him, her words echoing hauntingly clear in the void she had left behind her: ‘I didn’t do anything to die for – I didn’t do anything.'”


The theme of the story is classical: the universe (or what the ancient Greeks would have called Destiny) does not care about our petty loves and desires. One and one inexorably add up to two, no matter how desperately we would have it otherwise.


Years after “The Cold Equations” was published Campbell laughingly recalled the story’s evolution. “He [Godwin] kept wanting to save the girl.” The editor had to insist on the “down-beat” ending. To do otherwise would have been to turn a memorable story into merely another “gadget” tale.


Beyond his insistence on scientific plausibility and his philosophical attitude, Campbell demanded writing quality much higher than the pulp fiction that preceded his reign at ASF. There were only a few science fiction magazine being published in the late Thirties and throughout the years of World War II. Campbell consistently paid the best rates in the field, and consistently was the first editor to whom a writer sent each new manuscript. He used this powerful position to pick the stories that he considered best, and the quality of the writing was an important criterion, although usually an unspoken one.


Yet consider what was published in ASF before Campbell. I picked two stories at random: “Redmask of the Outlands,” by Nat Schachner, and “Star Ship Invincible,” by Frank K. Kelly. They were the lead stories in the January 1934 and January 1935 issues of ASF. The magazine at that time was considered among the best in the field. Schachner was a regular contributor who had 57 stories published in ASF between 1931 and 1941, several of them under pen names because he often had more than one story in an issue. Kelly had only three stories in ASF in 1934 and ’35.


Unknown March 1939

Unknown March 1939

The opening lines of Schachner’s “Redmask of theOutlands: “The city-state of Yorrick was a huge cube of blackness on the shores of the ocean. On one side stretched the interminable Atlantic, billowing and sun-bright; on the other, the almost interminable forests of the Outlands. In between lay a sudden cessation of light, of matter itself – a spatial void of smoothly regular outlines.The oligarchs of Yorrick had builded [sic] well to protect themselves and their millions of subjects against attack. Against the warped, folded space that inclosed [sic] the three levels of the city, powered as it was by the gravitational-flow machines, the most modern offense was impotent. No weapon conceived by man could break through.”


And the opening of Kelly’s “Star Ship Invincible:”


“He had been sitting hunched on the high stool of the operator’s chair, elbows on the smooth ledge of metal that encircled him, when the receptor tube spat a harsh sound in his ears, a sibilant warning note. He thought, “What now!” but straightened with alacrity, his stiff back shaping a tense angle.He jerked his head upward in an arc,  nostrils widened, his thin nose slightly trembling, as if he could smell what was vibrating through the receptor channel. He forgot how cold he was, and how his stomach ached faintly from many days on a diet of compressed-food tablets, and how he wished his relief would come, because he was lonely, the universe seemed strange and hostile all around him.”


It took many months before Campbell used up the inventory of stories that his predecessor (now his boss) had accumulated, and even longer before he began to get the kind of stories he wanted to publish. Here are the opening lines from the lead stories of the January 1940 and January 1941 issues of ASF.

The first is “Neutral Vessel,” by Harl Vincent:


“In the captive military observation sphere a hundred miles above the outer cloud layer of Venus, Tommy Blake idly punched a location spot on the calculating board. He was not greatly impressed by the alarm indication of this body’s approach. Seven million miles it was off, at the limit of the sensitive magnetic pickup system. From its direction, it could hardly be a Martian battle fleet, and even if it were, they would beseveral days getting here. Plenty of time.”


The January 1941 lead story was “Sixth Column,” by Anson MacDonald (Robert A. Heinlein), an acknowledged masterpiece; Its opening lines:


“‘What the hell goes on here?’ Whitey Ardmore demanded.  They ignored his remark as they had ignored his arrival. The man at the television receiver said, ‘Shut up. We’re listening,’ and turned up the volume. The announcer’s voice blared out, ‘ – Washington destroyed completely. With Manhattan in ruins, that leaves no – ‘ There was a click as the receiver was turned off. ‘That’s it,’ said the man near it. ‘The United States is washed up.’ Then he added, ‘Anybody got a cigaret?'”


The contrast between the stiff, stilted prose of 1934-35 and the more naturalistic and engaging style of 1940-41 is no accident. Schachner and Kelly were still writing in the early 1940s but Campbell did not buy their work.


Instead, he sought writers who not only had real experience in science and engineering, but who could also write smoothly and naturalistically. He wanted writers who had “been there,” at the edge of modern research and engineering, and who could write out of personal experience of the kinds of people and situations that existed at those frontiers.


The “slick” magazines have died away, but Campbell’s science fiction is a powerful, dynamic field of contemporary literature.


Analog June 1960

Analog June 1960


The prolific Robert Silverberg started his career in ASF. While every book publisher in New York rejected Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, Campbell serialized it despite the fact that it was twice as long as ordinary magazine serials of the time. The tremendous reader response to the novel created the audience for the book’s eventual publication – by a textbook publisher in Philadelphia.


No one read the manuscripts submitted to ASF except Campbell himself. There was no “first reader;” he read them all, those sent in by agents, those from the best-known writers in the field, and those from the unknowns. It was particularly that enormous flow of manuscripts from previously-unpublished writers, called in the trade “the slushpile,” that Campbell mined for gold. There he discovered the new talent that made his magazine – and the field – great. He gave up his own not-inconsiderable writing career and spent the rest of his life reading manuscripts, frequently for twelve hours a day or more. For 34 years.


He was inordinately kind to young writers. His letters, even his rejection letters, are legendary for their richness of helpful ideas and encouragement to “try again.” The most famous example, of course, is the teenaged Isaac Asimov, who all his life gave Campbell the major share of the credit for his success as a writer.

Campbell often said, “The real job of an editor is to find a good writer in a bad story.” That is, to recognize talent in a beginner’s clumsy efforts. And then to encourage the beginner until he begins writing publishable stories.


By the 1950s new science fiction magazines such as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction began to appear on the newsstands. Book publishers started to take science fiction seriously. They all built on the foundations that Campbell had constructed. Even those editors and writers who decried “Campbellian” science fiction as too restricting and old-fashioned were (perhaps unknowingly) taking advantage of Campbell’s many years of labor and the audience he had built up.

The quality of science fiction writing was unquestionably higher in 1950 than it had been in 1937. More than that, the readers had been trained in the pages of ASF to expect and demand writing that was much better than the earlier prose of the pulp magazines. These expectations and demands increased as the decades rolled on. The “New Wave” of the late 1960s and the burgeoning of science fiction in the 70s and 80s were the inevitable consequences of the evolution of science fiction away from the pulp magazines and toward a true contemporary literature. Campbell played the pioneering role in that evolution.


Perhaps the most revealing incident in Campbell’s long career came immediately after he was appointed editor of Astounding. He asked a senior editor at Street & Smith, “What happens if I don’t get enough stories to fill the magazine?” The older man fixed him with a stern eye and said, “A good editor does.”


From that moment on Campbell spent his enormous energies making certain that he could fill the magazine. His hackles-raising editorials, his voluminous correspondence, his long hours of reading manuscripts, his marathon arguments over everything and anything from quantum physics to slavery to the Dean Drive – all were aimed at making certain there would be no blank pages in ASF.


More than that, he wanted to fill the magazine with his kind of stories: technically acute, up-beat, and well-written. He succeeded far better than anyone before or since. What we call “science fiction” today is what John W. Campbell determined the field should be.

©Ben Bova 2009 


Ben Bova

Ben Bova



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