Saturday, November 9, 2013

Lessons from the Batcave

I learned something this week from the Batcave. Well, it's not really the Batcave. It's actually the Fatcave, but you can't have a Fatcave without the Batcave.

Speak sense, man! Hark! I shall.

Most of y'all know that Batman is my favorite superhero. One of the absolute best Batman-related thing currently being produced is Kevin Smith's Fatman on Batman podcast. He refers to his house/recording studio as the "Fatcave," so there's the reason for that reference. If you are remotely interested in Batman, I can't recommend this podcast highly enough. But if you are also interested in how creative people come to do the things they do, this podcast is a must. 

This year is the year in which I learned that I could write and write consistently. I now know that I can sit anywhere and bang out words and string along paragraphs to makes stories or novels. I'd like to think that the more I'm writing, the better my writing is. That's the nature of practice, right? But what about the other side of the equation? What about the imagination part?

On my own, I've been studying some of my favorite novels to break them down into their component parts to learn how a book is constructed. But what about the germ of an idea? Sometimes, I'll admit, that my imagination is the thing that needs work. Sometimes, I'd almost like a prompt. On the things I do imagine, I'm always curious how others use their imagination and create ideas. 

That's where Kevin Smith comes in. On his 51st episode, his guest was Paul Dini, the same man who inaugurated this podcast in episode one. As Smith is wont to do, there is some meandering talk, but something magical happens about a half hour into the 90-minute podcast. The two of them discuss the TV spot of the new Batman: Origins video game. Here it is. The commercial is fantastic. What it shows is a series of images, all close up on Bruce Wayne, from the moment the man kills his parts, to the funeral, to prep school, to high school, to him training to be Batman, and finally as the Dark Knight himself. As steeped as I am in Bat-lore, the prep school and high school scenes were new to me.

And they were new to Smith and Dini. They both zero in on the prep school shot and talk about that part of Wayne's life is underwritten. Then, the magic starts. The two Bat-fans start brainstorming a potential TV show centering on Bruce Wayne in prep school. Their enthusiasm for the project is palpable, and it's a show I'd, frankly, pay money to watch. They spin the show's mythology in wonderful little twists and do for Batman what the TV show Smallville did for Superman. And the fan community went wild. Just check out the comments.

It was the brainstorming that really got me. Right there, in my ears, was a creative team imagining something, putting beats into the overall story arc, talking about where you'd end season one or season two, and just painting this tantalizing vision in broad strokes. Then, they went back and filled in some details before moving on to the next topic. 

Man! That was exactly what I needed to hear. Shoot, I've listened to it twice, not only to absorb the how-to session of spitballing an idea, but to revel in the Bat-nerdism of these two men. Someone should seriously make this show. It's awesome.

So, in an unlikely source, I got a little taste of a creative team in a brainstorming session. It was exactly what I needed to hear and I've already started applying it's tenants to the series of novellas I'm writing. I'll be a better writer for it.

Now, if someone would only make that show….

What kind of out-of-left-field things help you along your writer way?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Book Review Club: Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye

(This is the June 2013 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For a complete list, click on the icon after this review.)

Without a doubt, the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, is the one movie I am most looking forward to this year. To help do what I always do--immerse myself in a property--I’ve been reading my old Superman comics, enjoying Superman: The Animated Series episodes, and watching the older movies. I was happily surprised to discover that there was a history of Superman just waiting to be read. Perfect timing.

Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero was published in 2012 and it tells the story of Superman from his creation by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster all the way up to the Man of Steel movie which, at the time of publication, was “the new Superman movie next year.” The story of Kal-el and his handlers is a microcosm of 20th American history in general and the comic book industry in particular.

I’ve always been fascinated why and how the 1930s produced such a wide variety of heroes. I’m convinced it’s a product of the times, when dire economic times and the worry it produced created a yearning for honest-to-goodness heroes with a firm moral code and little or no gray to their characters. You know: they guys who always wore the white hats. When you look at the all the parts of the “pulp soup” that was being mixed in this decade--Doc Savage, The Shadow, The Green Hornet, John Carter, Tarzan, and more--it’s pretty simple to think that someone like Superman would be created. In fact, it wasn’t until I started reading the Doc Savage novels that I discovered that some of the Superman tropes--his first name, the Fortress of Solitude--were lifted straight from Lester Dent’s imagination. It’s a wonder he didn’t sue. As a writer myself, it’s kind of nice to read that it took the pair six years to land a publisher. Perseverance pays off!

In this modern age of consumerism, it was eye-opening to learn just how many things Superman has sold. With tongue firmly in cheek, Tye even labels one of his chapters “Superman, Inc.” with a familiar refrain of “Ka-ching” throughout that chapter. Not sure why it surprised me, but it did. Speaking of superheroes selling things, am I the only one who misses the little one-page ads where Superman, Batman, or Spider-man would catch the crook because the evil doer was seduced by a Twinkee?

Speaking of seducing, the chapter on the 1950s crackdown on comic books was also quite interesting. From my own knowledge of the medium, I knew that it was the crime and horror comics that fed the fire of Dr. Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, the book and movement that strove to bury the comics industry by pinning all of society’s woes on the exploits of people in comics. Makes me wonder what he’d make of the internet...

As someone who grew up in the Bronze Age of comics (roughly 1970 to 1986), I have always enjoyed the zaniness of comics. Granted, some of that zaniness was gone by the mid 1970s, but it was interesting to learn how Mort Weisinger, editor at DC Comics and Superman titles in particular, actually went about consolidating the Man of Steel and all that goes with him. It was so wide and varied that the mid-1980s event, Crisis on Infinite Earths (the comic book story that shrank all the parallel Earths down to just one) was destined to happen.

There’s the legal stuff, too. Siegel and Shuster basically sold their most famous creation for $130, losing control of the thing that generated billions. Yes, it was a business and businessmen do what businessmen do, but it’s still a shame. From these two all the way up to Alan Moore in the 1980s, comic creators often found themselves on the short end of a dollar bill. Tye even goes into some detail and explains why the new movie is being released this year.

And I learned the names associated with Superman and the 75 years of his history. That’s a real benefit , so much so that, a few weekends ago at Houston’s Comicpalooza, I found a few old Superman titles in the $0.25 bin (!) and bought them based solely on the authors of the tales. I also met Kevin J. Anderson and picked up an autographed copy of Enemies and Allies, his novel in which he reimagines the first meeting of Superman and Batman in the 1950s. And, if you are still in the Superman mood, you can always read Tom DeHaven’s “It’s Superman” (my review).

Oh, and there are some comics to read, too. Seventy-five years worth of comics. Not all of them are good, but some are great. Some of my more-recent personal favorites are All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely and Superman: For All Seasons by Jeph Loeb. All-Star Superman has been made into an animated movie, but I suggest you read the books. It spends much more time in this one-off story. I love it so much that I am tempted to say that it’s the best Superman story in the last 25 years (easily) and ranks as one of the best of all time.

So, after you see Man of Steel and are curious about the history of the Last Son of Krypton, read this book. You will certainly enjoy it.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Book Review Club: Caliban's War by James S. A. Corey

(This is the May 2013 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click on the icon following this review.)

Well, it’s been a month and I’ve devoured another giant book of space opera. In last month’s review, I wrote about James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes. I loved it so much that I moved on to the sequel, Caliban’s War. If I have to sum up my thoughts on this second book in the series, it’s this: Corey suffered no sophomore slump.

Caliban’s War picks up a year after the events of Leviathan Wakes. Jim Holden, captain of the four-person ship, the Rocinante, and one of the two main characters from the first book, has been working for the leader of The Belt (as in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter). He’s basically a cop keeping the pirates in check. As good as the work is--what with all his repairs being paid for by Fred Johnson, the Belter Leader--Holden is missing something. Part of it is a purpose. The other part is that special thing that used to be his trademark, that part of him that made him different than the pure thug he’s kind of turned into. He’ll find that purpose on Ganymede, one of the moons of Saturn and the primary food outlet for the outer planets.

What sequels are all but required to do is introduce new characters and amp up the action. With Leviathan Wakes being a lengthy book, you get a good chance to get under Holden’s skin and into his mind, so much so that you basically know what he’s going to do in any given situation. That’s a tall order to top with Caliban’s War as Corey introduces three new characters that, as the novel unfolds hold themselves up very well.

Bobbie Draper, female Marine from Mars, is on Ganymede as the military force for Mars when a shooting war starts. The Saturnian moon is basically a little like Berlin in the Cold War, divided up between Earth, Mars, and the Belt. When the shooting starts, Bobbie and her platoon rush to aid her fellow Martians against the Earthers...until she sees what is truly happening: the Earthers are fleeing from some thing. That thing is walking, no, running on Ganemede’s surface without a suit, and ripping through her entire platoon. We readers are familiar with the creature: it’s a black-skinned human/alien hybrid made from the proto-molecule from the first book. She is the only survivor, and she is sent to Earth to give her report to the politicians who think more of their own careers than they do about human lives.

One of those politicans is Chrisjen Avasarala, a high-ranking official in the United Nations who swears like she’s a sailor. She has to deal not only with the same politicians Bobbie goes up against (but Avasarala has a much better political acumen than does the Marine) but she’s also up to her eyeballs with the UN military brass and their desire to keep the truth of what happened on Ganymede a secret. Why? That’s one of the questions Avasarala must grapple with as everything starts to go south.

Then there is Prax Meng, a biologist on Ganymede who is trying to find his missing daughter. A divorcee, he learns his daughter, May, was kidnapped right before all the stuff hit the fan. All he wants to do is find her. In the prologue, we readers are privy to her abduction, so we pretty much know that she and the other children taken are likely to be used as human experiments with the proto-molecule. He is out of money and out of resources and out of options until he recognizes one man who has come to Ganymede to find out what’s going on: Captain Jim Holden.

Just like the first novel, Corey mixes the points of view for each chapter. Knowing the template, even though all the characters start the story strewn across the solar system, you know that they are going to end up together. That they do, and the action is just as good the second time around.

But what makes these two books special for me is the quiet moments. There’s a good amount of them as they face challenges and meet them with the resources on hand. It’s the best of the Star Trek spirit, if I can make a comparison. You really get into the skins of these characters. You feel with them. You cheer with them, and then you get your blood pumping with them.

There’s an elephant in this story: Venus. The culmination at the end of Leviathan Wake involved Venus and, all through Caliban’s War, what’s happening on Venus is in the back of everyone’s mind. I have a prediction, one that I’m not going to share here in case you have a hankering to read these novels. I have really enjoyed them, and eagerly await the release of book 3, Abaddon’s Gate, in June. Highly recommended.

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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Remembering David Bloom: Ten Years Later

(A decade is a long time, and, yet, one that can easily be remembered. Here, in 2013, we are marking the decade anniversaries of the Iraq War. One of the things that I always remember were the reporters embedded with our fighting forces, David Bloom in particular. Today, on the anniversary of his untimely passing on the battlefield, I am reposting the essay I wrote for and was published in the Houston Chronicle. Bloom died of a blood clot brought on by deep-vein thrombosis. It can be prevented, and you can learn more at Mr. Bloom, we all still miss you.)

April 7, 2003, 8:18PM (Tuesday)

The war came home for me Sunday.

I hesitate to write that sentence because the war in Iraq is almost 4-weeks-old now and there have been at least 108 coalition soldiers killed. Each one of those families already has the war at home with them. The war sits down to dinner in the empty seat of the missing father. The war is in bed with the newly widowed wife, the empty space next to her now a hollow hole in her heart.

I have no relatives fighting in Iraq. In this country of more than 280 million people and about 1.4 million people who serve in the all-volunteer military, I am one of many in America whose freedom is defended by someone nameless.

But those who cover the war aren't nameless, and one of the best things to emerge from the war is the reporting by embedded journalists in the field. With new technology and 24-hour news channels, the war --with its images of reporters in military gear – is simply always on. Yet, while I admire the courage of these reporters, some of them look out of place.

One reporter who seemed exactly in his place was David Bloom, a journalist for NBC. Ever since his unit -- the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division -- moved out, David was dirty. He was the first reporter to beam live images of the moving convoy of tanks. I remember seeing these images and being astounded that I was witnessing live war footage. He had a "boyish enthusiasm" when he described military details, and he knew his role exactly: Bring home the war to the American people.

But the war details were not the entire story. He also knew that his greater responsibility was to show America the lives these soldiers were leading. He let us know that MREs were not all that bad. He let us know how big a Bradley vehicle was and yet how cramped it could be when fully occupied. He let us know how dusty it was by never cleaning up for the camera. He let us -- the ones the soldiers were protecting --know what it was like to be a U.S. soldier in Iraq.

David Bloom seemed to always be on the air. Iraq is nine hours ahead of Houston, but no matter the time of day here, there always seemed to be the word "Live" on the screen. He was live during the middle of the night talking with Lester Holt, live during the Today show and even live during the evening news, giving Tom Brokaw the absolute latest. When I flicked channels between the three major network news channels, if David Bloom was on, I stopped and listened. He was, for me and for my wife, Vanessa, our favorite reporter, a friendly voice from the front line.

He died Sunday of a pulmonary embolism. Based on what I learned that day, he took power naps and would stay awake for hours. Perhaps that is why he seemed to always be on, live, no matter the program or time. The retrospectives told us that he was a driven man, one who always had to be where the action was. He volunteered for this assignment and, I think, broke the mold as a front-line combat reporter.

I was feeding my son when the news broke. I am used to nameless numbers when the media talk about casualties, men and women who have laid down their lives for me. But when the news anchor said David's name, my heart was pierced. Tears seeped into my eyes for a man I never knew but, somehow, knew. My wife cried, too.

The embolism was a noncombat death, but it really is a combat death. David went to Iraq partly out of a duty to his profession, but also partly out of a loyalty to this country. He is a casualty of war, just as are the other fallen soldiers. They all are heroes.

I have never been a soldier, but I am a writer and I know what that is like. David Bloom and the more than 600 embedded reporters are heroes to me. With them, the war is very close.

With the intimacy of television, perfect strangers can seem like friends to us. We viewers think of Dave or Jay, not Mr. Letterman or Mr. Leno. David Bloom's constant presence on the television, his mannerisms, his wit, his focus on the ordinary humanness of our soldiers made him seem like "David" to me, a person I knew on a first-name basis. And he was, in a way. That is the nature of television.

But on Sunday, upon learning that I'd never again hear his voice, upon learning that he left his family to go and do something bigger than himself, upon learning of his ultimate sacrifice for his country and his profession, he was Mr. Bloom. That is the nature of heroes.

The war came home for me that day.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Book Review Club: Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

(This is the April 2013 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click on the icon following this review.)

Let's get this out of the way at the start: Leviathan Wakes may be space opera, but it's not your grandfather's space opera.

Your granddad, if he were a mind, probably cut his teeth on Edgar Rice Burroughs, E. E. "Doc" Smith, Leigh Brackett, or any of the writers from the golden age of SF. Your dad probably cut his teeth on the likes of Michael Moorcock, Star Trek, Star Wars, or any of the things that have come in their wake. When you mention these authors or shows, certain things come to mind: spaceships, lasers, dreadful monsters, dashing heroes, and lots of derring do. Oh, and physics doesn't count because there's artificial gravity, warp drive, hyperspace, and all the usual stuff you associate with the genre.

Leviathan Wakes, then, is somewhat of a new animal. It's a space opera yarn for the 21st Century. It is not the only one, to be sure, but it is the first of its kind that I've read. Author James S. A. Corey (actually a pen name for the authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) has set the first of a trilogy (aren't they all?) in the near distant future and entirely in our solar system. I say "near distant" because it's a few centuries away, but not far enough that all the parts of this universe isn't too far gone to be recognizable. By setting the entire story in our own solar system ensures the reader that the tale will be on the frontier, but a believable frontier complete with all the human problems that we early 21st Century citizens can understand.

The story follows two main characters. Jim Holden, Earth-born, is the executive officer on the ice hauler, Canterbury. The 'Cant' receives a distress call from the Scopuli and, under common practice, they answer it. Holden leads a crew of three on their smaller shuttle to investigate. They find evidence of piracy and attribute the origin to Mars. On their way back to the mothership, however, the Canterbury is attacked and destroyed. Distraught with emotion, Holden sends a message across the entire solar system that all but accuses Mars of being the perpetrators. Naturally, this stirs up some animosity between Earth, Mars, and the Belt (the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter).

The other main character is Miller, a police detective born and raised in the colonized asteroid Ceres. Granted, he's your typical noir-inflected character, but he's tasked with a new, off-the-books assignment: Find Julie Mao and bring her back, by any means necessary, to her parents.

Well, as it turns out, Julie was on the Scopuli, so, naturally, you pretty much have Miller and Holden angling on a collision course both between themselves and the entire system.

This book gets a lot of things right. This is space opera on the believable level. Yes, there are lasers, but not any photon torpedoes. There is no light speed and it really does take a long time to get from place to place. The characters experience G-force pressure when accelerating, nearly to a dangerously high level. Communication is not instantaneous. A "live" conversation has scores of minutes in lag time. The space combat is brutal and not without a comparison to old-style naval combat. All told, these characteristics of the story give this tale life, a vision of the future that you don't get from Star Trek.

Each chapter is told from the POV of either Miller or Holden. For the first third or so, they are separated, enabling the authors to comment on the events from a distance. Once the heroes meet up, the authors can show and tell of the events from the different POVs. Holden is an earnest man who believes that, if everyone knew all the facts, they would choose the right course of action. Miller is the cynic, the real world man who knows that is rarely the truth. Together, these two world views clash and strive towards the conclusion of the book.

Leviathan Wakes is satisfying on a host of levels, but none more than this: I've easily transitioned to the second novel of the trilogy (Caliban's War) and eagerly await the concluding volume later this summer. If you have a taste for blockbuster space opera in book form, Leviathan Wakes is your food. Devour it and enjoy.
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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Inspiration from Unlikely Sources

A common writerly thing we tell ourselves is that inspiration for a story can come from just about any place and at any time. You know what else can come from those same mysterious places? The desire, the push you might need to get one's butt in a chair and write.

I don't know if y'all ever experience this, but, at times, watching my current favorite TV programs (Castle, Elementary, Grimm, Body of Proof), at some point during the broadcast, two things usually happen. One, the realization that I should probably be writing. I let that one slide, typically, because we can't be a writer and/or writing all the time. Two, I get inspired to go write. I enjoy those shows for their creativity, their structure, and their characters that it can prompt me to take notes about my characters or stories or dash to the keyboard and fire out some pages of my own characters because I enjoy them coming to life as much as I enjoy watching Castle, Beckett, Holmes, or Nick Burkhardt come to life and do their thing.

That kind of inspiration is, I think, typical of all of us writers. What may not be typical is getting inspiration from as unlikely as source as a podcast about Batman. Kevin Smith has, since last year, created a podcast devoted to his love of the Dark Knight. Naming it "Fat Man on Batman," each week (more or less) is an episode devoted to one or another aspect of Batman's history. With this venture being an audio-only podcast, naturally, the only thing we have is the interview itself, the voices of Smith and his guests for that has been the way Smith talks about Batman. His guest list has run out pretty wide, even though it is probably more Batman: The Animated Series heavy. 

For any Batman fan out there, I cannot recommend this show enough. It has been the weekly thing that I most look forward to. I download and put on my iPod as quickly as possible. The depth and breadth Smith and his guests take the adventures of Batman is inspiring. It will confirm things you already knew, reassess things you thought in a different way, and make the entire experience of watching and reading Batman fun again.

But that's not all. What comes across in your ears is passion. There is a passion for the material, certainly. How can you even think to have a podcast if you hated something, right? It's become something of a joke now, but many of Smith's interviewees bring the big man to tears. If it's not tears that are forming in Smith's eyes (and voice), then it's awe. All too often, the guests--who have ranged from Mark Hamill, Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Kevin Conroy (Batman: TAS) to Kyle Higgins, Geoff Johns, and Grant Morrison (comics)--convey their thought process behind a certain episode or issue or way of thinking about Bruce Wayne and his rather odd outlet for his childhood tragedy. Each time, Smith just sits in stunned amazement, comprehending something he thought he knew and seeing it in a new way. The same for us listeners, too.

Just like the old days when you were limited by the number of comics you could put in a box and take with you on vacation and you read those same issues over and over, these podcasts are like that. I've listened to most of them twice, so enjoyable are the conversation and the topics. But each time, I am prompted, nee I'm pushed by an uncompromising force to get to my Mac or pen/paper and *create*. It is the strangest thing. You'd think that I would start writing my own Batman story or jump back to an episode or an issue and re-read. I do that, but not initially. What I end up doing is want to create my own beings and put them through the motions of their lives. I want to bring the passion for my own material that others bring to Batman. I already have the passion for my projects--why else would I be writing them?--but sometimes, this podcast is like icing on the cake. It is a wonderfully unexpected consequence to listening to theses podcasts.

Is there something you do that brings unexpected creativity to your writing?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Book Review Club: Bloodhype by Alan Dean Foster

(This is the March 2013 edition of Barrie Summy's book review club. For the complete list, click the icon at the bottom of this review.)

Sometimes, you're mother is really correct.

Bloodhype is Alan Dean Foster's second published novel. Published in 1973, it is part of his Humanx Commonwealth, his version of the future where humans and Thranx (insectoid aliens) have created an alliance and spread their influence across this arm of the galaxy. The enemy of the Commonwealth are the Aann, spacefaring reptiles that are not unlike the Klingons. Well, to be honest, the Thranx are not unlike the Vulcans, but there is much more to the universe than the inspirations from Star Trek.

The titular substance, bloodhype, is a drug that, according to the dust jacket, is instantly addictive. Vanished from the galaxy for years, an improbable pair is assigned the task of tracking down its reappearance on the planet Repler: a young human woman (Kitten Kai-sung) and a furry raccoon-like thing (take a look at it up on the cover). Naturally, they meet up with a captain of a shipping freighter, the latter being the one who inadvertently discovered the presence of bloodhype.

Their investigation runs alongside the sub-plot of the Vom, a creature that is like a ebony blob. In my mind's eye, I kept imagining a sentient oil slick. The Vom is stranded (imprisoned, actually) on a dead planet, and yet the Aann remove it to Repler. It doesn't take a genius to imagine that the Vom, bloodhype, the trio, and the bad guys will all mix and mingle with various results.

Another pair of characters also make an appearance: Pip and Flinx. Foster's first book, The Tar-Aiym Krang, is the debut appearance for his most famous creations, Flinx and his flying snake, Pip. I bring up this fact because Foster had originally intended to make Bloodhype a stand-alone novel set in the universe, but the publisher prompted the author to include Pip and Flinx in the novel. Foster complied, but the Pip and Flinx don't really act like the versions you see in the first book. Turns out, after Foster wrote twelve more books featuring his famous duo (fourteen total), that the events of Bloodhype occur in the eleventh position. Rather odd, if you ask me.

Bloodhype is a decent book, especially if you can wrap your head around the fact that it really isn't a Pip and Flinx Adventure, but an adventure in which the pair make an appearance. The Tar-Aiym Krang is a much better book (and is part of a trilogy along with Orphan Star and The End of the Matter).

The reason I bring up my mom is this. Foster was my first favorite SF author when I discovered the genre back in the late 70s. At that time, there were only four Pip and Flinx books: the  aforementioned trilogy and Bloodhype. One day (probably at the B. Dalton in Westwood Mall in Houston), I took Bloodhype to my mom. She had to review and clear books for me if they weren't YA. She read through it, cleared it for me, but told me that I probably wouldn't enjoy it. My young self certainly would not have enjoyed it--in fact, I never read it back then. My fortysomething self am glad I've read it--being the completist I am--but I doubt I'll ever re-read it (as I have the trilogy). Moms: they really know their children, huh?
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