Retrospeculative View, 1990

Before I dive into the speculative world of 1990, I should point out that my reading preferences were undergoing a transformation around this time: I was shifting away from genre fiction, toward more literate works (I’m sure that sounds pompous, but I can’t think of another way to explain the phenomenon). As I’ve been writing these posts, I’ve noticed that there are more and more science fiction and fantasy novels — and even more of the shorter works of speculative fiction — that I’m unfamiliar with (I’m aware of notable and award-winning novels but I haven’t necessarily gone out of my way to read them). I’m quite familiar with works before the mid-1980s, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to amass a list of works I can reliably comment on. With that in mind, I’ve decided that this will be my final Retrospeculative View post using this particular format (I’m in the germination stages of deciding what future posts will look like; as of this moment, the ideas are nebulous).

Some of the short speculative fiction of 1990:

The Hemingway Hoax, by Joe Haldeman (Hugo & Nebula Award for best novella)

A Short, Sharp Shock, by Kim Stanley RobinsonTHH_Haldeman

Fool to Believe, by Pat Cadigan

The Manamouki, by Mike Resnick (Hugo Award for best novelette)

Tower of Babylon, by Ted Chiang (Nebula Award for best novelette)

Bears Discover Fire, by Terry Bisson (Hugo & Nebula Award for best Short Story)

The Utility Man, by Robert Reed

Cibola, by Connie Willis

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Sandman #19), by Neil Gaiman (Writer) and Charles Vess (Illustrator) (World Fantasy Award for best Short Story)

Bones, by Pat Murphy (World Fantasy Award for best Novella). Pat Murphy also won the Philip K. Dick Award for her collection of short stories, Points of Departure. She was also the co-founder (along with Karen Fowler) of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 1991 (the award was in honour of Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote as James Tiptree, Jr.)

 Movies released in 1990:

Edward Scissorhands. From Rotten Tomatoes:  “The first collaboration between Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands is a magical modern fairy tale with gothic overtones and a sweet center.”Christopher_Lloyd_BTTF_III

Back to the Future III. The third (and final) in a franchise; this time, a science fiction western.

Ghost. A romantic-fantasy-thriller that made tons of money.

Total Recall. A film based on PK dick’s short story, We Can Remember It for you Wholesale (1966).

Some of the notable novels of 1990:

The following six novels I haven’t read but they seem interesting and/or others enjoyed them:

The Vor Game, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Hugo Award winner). The sixth full-length novel published in the Vorkosigan Saga, and it is included in an omnibus titled Young Miles (1997). Until recently, I hadn’t read anything by this author; however, I just finished her novel Falling Free, and it’s an interesting story, but hasn’t really convinced me that I need to read more (I will try one of her Miles Vorkosigan novels, which seem to be the fan-favourites).

tehanuTehanu (The Last Book of Earthsea), by Ursula Le Guin (Nebula Award winner). Although this book was written by one of my favourite writers, and is widely considered to be among her best work, I was never drawn into the Earthsea series.

Thomas the Rhymer, by Ellen Kushner (World Fantasy Award winner (tie: see below) and the Mythopoeic Award). This fantasy novel is derived from folklore, and an eponymous ballad about Thomas Learmonth (a 13th-century Scottish laird) depicting his mythic romance with the Queen of Elfland and her gift to him of prophecy, which carried with it the inability to tell a lie.

Only Begotten Daughter, by James Morrow (World Fantasy Award winner (tie: see above)). From Wikipedia: “The story is about Julie Katz, the new Messiah, who is the daughter of God, and who is spontaneously conceived from a sperm bank donation by her father, Murray Katz, through “inverse parthenogenesis”. Julie struggles with her messianic powers, the mind games of Satan, being hunted by fundamentalists, and the silence of her mother, God.”

Pacific Edge, by Kim Stanley Robinson (The John W. Campbell Memorial Award), the third of his Three Californias trilogy: each book in the trilogy depicts three different possible futures, all set in California’s Orange County (The Wild Shore is post-nuclear, The Gold Coast is cyberpunk, and Pacific Edge is utopian).

In the Country of the Blind, by Michael F. Flynn (Prometheus Award winner). From Amazon’s review: “In the 19th century, the British scientist Charles Babbage designed an “analytical engine,” a working computer that was never built–or so the world believes. Sarah Beaumont, an ex-reporter and real estate developer, is investigating a Victorian-era Denver property when she finds an ancient analytical engine. Sarah investigates her astonishing discovery and finds herself pursued by a secret society that has used Babbage computers to develop a new science, cliology, which allows its practitioners to predict history–and to control history for its own purposes. And it will stop at nothing to preserve its secret mastery of human destiny.”

Novels I read & enjoyed that were published in 1990:

The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling. I enjoyed this steam-punk novel, but the story was a bit slow and dry, and I never became attached to any of the characters. The identity of the narrator is unknown until the end of the novel, and knowing who wrote it changed my view of the book substantially (the narrator’s identity was, no doubt, detected by other readers, but I remained ignorant until the reveal). Interesting, and I’m glad I read it, but I’ll probably never revisit it.

The_Eye_of_the_WorldThe Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan. The beginning volume in an incredibly successful fantasy series (The Wheel of Time, which I believe now consists of 14 lengthy novels). I read The Eye of the World when it was first published and enjoyed it enough to read the second, which I also thought was pretty good. Unfortunately — in my opinion (fans please don’t throw stones) — the series became absurd and too long, and I stopped caring and reading. Others loved the entire series, so it would be best to look elsewhere for more positive reviews…

The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons: good book, great writing, but a disappointing sequel to Hyperion, which didn’t require all its threads to be neatly tied (and this book contradicted some of what transpired in Hyperion). Simmons wrote two more sequels (Endymion and The Rise of Endymion), which were both admirable science fiction novels, but they also did not live up to the brilliance of Hyperion.

Eight Skilled Gentlemen, by Barry Hughart. This was the third and, sadly, final fantasy-mystery involving Number Ten Ox (the narrator, a brawny peasant) and Master Li (a Sage with a slight flaw in his character). Highly recommended.

And my choice for Retrospeculative novel for 1990 is…

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks. This isn’t quite my favorite Banks’ novel (that distinction would go to The Player of Games, a lighter novel in tone and heft), but it is a very close second. Use of Weapons is built with an interesting structure of alternating chapters with opposing time-streams…Use_of_Weapons

One set of chapters moves forward in time (Chapter One, Two, etc.) and recounts the efforts of Diziet Sma and a drone, Skaffen-Amtiskaw (both of Special Circumstances), to convince a man named Zakalwe to return to duty for one more assignment.

The other set of chapters moves backwards in time (Chapter XIII, XII, etc.) and depicts Zakalwe’s previous assignments, eventually concluding with his life before being recruited by the Culture.

Within chapters there are several flashbacks and the novel includes a prologue and an epilogue. All of this creates a somewhat confusing plot, but all becomes clear by the end. Although the book was a bit darker than I prefer, I thoroughly enjoyed how the two main threads slowly entwined.

Sadly, Iain M. Banks passed from this realm in 2013, but he wrote many enjoyable novels (both mainstream fiction, as Iain Banks, and science fiction, as Iain M. Banks). I don’t think he ever quite created the work of pure science fiction genius that was within him, but Use of Weapons was close.

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Retrospeculative View, 1989

Some of the short fiction of 1989:

The Mountains of Mourning, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Hugo & Nebula for best Novella)

Time-Out, by Connie WillisTTTA

A Touch of Lavender, by Megan Lindholm (Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogdenher; her other pseudonym is Robin Hobb)

Great Work of Time, by John Crowley (World Fantasy Award for best Novella)

The Price of Oranges, by Nancy Kress

Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another, by Robert Silverberg (Hugo Award for best Novelette)

At the Rialto, by Connie Willis (Nebula Award for best Novelette)

Boobs, by Suzy McKee Charnas (Hugo Award for best Short Story)

Ripples in the Dirac Sea, by Geoffrey Landis (Nebula Award for best Short Story)

Some of the ‘speculative’ movies from 1989Adventures_of_baron_munchausen

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the third in a franchise.

The Abyss, a James Cameron science-fiction thriller: pretty good, but a disappointing ending.

The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, a Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame) movie: a bit slow & muddled, but ultimately fun

Batman, the first of a franchise

Field of Dreams, an adaption of W. P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe (the book is much better)

Books I haven’t read that created some buzz:

A Fire in the Sun, by George Alec Effinger, a sequel to When Gravity Fails. I did read When Gravity Fails, which was quite well-written, but it didn’t appeal to me so I skipped the sequels (in 1991 Effinger also published The Exile Kiss, a third novel in his Marîd Audran series).

The Boat of a Million Years, by Poul Anderson. The novel traces the lives of a group of immortal humans from their lives in the ancient past and into the distant future.the-childs-garden

The Child’s Garden, by Geoff Ryman (Arthur C. Clarke John W. Campbell Award winner). I’ve read good things about this novel and it is on my ‘to read’ list. It apparently triggers emotional and intellectual reactions, but is difficult to digest. I’ve enjoyed other novels by Ryman; in particular, Air.

Subterranean Gallery, by Richard Paul Russo (Philip K. Dick Award). The novel depicts an underground artistic community in a post-apocalyptic California.

The Healer’s War, by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (Nebula Award winner). The author was a nurse during the Vietnam War and she apparently draws on her experiences to tell a mystical tale of the war. The main character is a nurse in the Vietnam War who is given a mystical amulet by an elderly patient before he dies. The amulet allows the nurse to perceive auras, and she embarks on a spiritual journey.

Some of the notable novels from 1989 that I have read:

Prentice Alvin, by Orson Scott Card, the third in the Alvin the Maker series. The series felt to me like it was leaking oil at about this point and I began to lose interest (I may finish reading the series for completeness, but I’m not particularly excited about the idea).

Grass, by Sherri Tepper. I’d heard wonderful things about this novel, but when I read it a couple of years ago I wasn’t particularly impressed. The initial set-up was good, but the story didn’t evolve in a way I appreciated and I wasn’t drawn to any of the characters (the main character, Marjorie, had potential, but I lost interest in her as the novel progressed). I probably won’t read another novel by this author, although I should point out that she has a large fan-base, so you might want to check elsewhere for differing opinions.

Madouc by Jack Vance (World Fantasy Award), the second book in the Lyonesse series. I loved this series when it first came out, but haven’t found the time to re-read it and cannot recall all the particulars. I do, however, remember being transported to an alternate realm because of exceptional world-building.

Eden, by Stanislaw Lem. A minor Lem classic that left a lasting impression on me. Eden starts slowly, but gains allegorical momentum. At first, the aliens on the planet seem very exotic; but, by the end of the novel, I felt they were not so very different from humans at all. Recommended, especially if you’re a fan of the author (note: the novel was first published in Polish is 1959; the English translation by Marc E. Heine was first published in 1989).

My pick for the Retrospeculative novel of 1989 is…

simmons-hyperionHyperion, by Dan Simmons (Hugo Award winner). This should be considered for any list of best science fiction novels of all time: it’s a classic of the genre (although, for some obscure reason, it wasn’t short-listed for a Nebula Award). Much has been written about Hyperion, and I’ll keep my synopsis brief (do a quick Google search for tons o’ information). There were sequels (Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and Rise of Endymion); and, although all the sequels were good science fiction, none of them captured the brilliance of Hyperion (which was, I believe, initially written as a stand-alone novel).

Hyperion follows a structure similar to The Canterbury Tales (not that I’m an expert on that tome!): it is a framed story involving seven pilgrims journeying to the planet Hyperion. All but one of the pilgrims tells their tale, forming the major sections of the book, and each tale is steeped in a different sub-genre. One of the characters is a clone of the poet John Keats, who never managed to finish his epic poem Hyperion (Keats did complete The Fall of Hyperion and Endymion, which contains the famous first line: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”). Hyperion contains a depth not often encountered in the science fiction genre. Highly recommended!!!

Retrospeculative View 1988

Some of the Speculative Short Fiction from 1988:

isaac_asimovs_science_fiction_198807Kirinyaga, by Mike Resnick (Hugo Award for best Short Story)

The Skin Trade, by George R.R. Martin (World Fantasy Award for best Novella)

Schrödinger’s Kitten, by George Alec Effinger (Hugo & Nebula Award for best Novelette)

The Last of the Winnebagos, by Connie Willis (Hugo & Nebula Award for best Novella)

Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge, by James K. Morrow (Nebula Award for best Short Story)

Surfacing, by Walter Jon Williams

Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance, by Howard Waldrop

Peaches for Mad Molly, by Steven Gould

Movies/television 1988:

TotoroWho Framed Roger Rabbit, a hyper mix of live action and animation.

Beettlejuice, a bizarre movie that my eldest daughter loves to watch as Halloween approaches.

Willow, a movie I’ve never been able to watch for more than a few minutes.

The Land Before Time. My youngest daughter remembers this movie fondly.

My Neighbor Totoro, a Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece and a family favorite.

Akira, a landmark animé film.

Some noteworthy Novels from 1988 that I haven’t read:

 Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold, (Nebula Award winner). A novel from the Vorkosigan Saga. The novel deals with the creation of Quaddies, genetically modified humans with four arms. The Quaddies were intended as space laborers, but antigravity technology rendered them obsolete and they became slaves. A sequel, Diplomatic Immunity, was published in 2002 (both are included in a 2007 omnibus, Miles, Mutants and Microbes). Update (20151107): I read this novel a couple of weeks ago. If interested, you can read my review.fallingfree250

Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling (John W. Campbell Memorial Award). A cyberpunk novel that is probably dated, but well-worth the time invested reading.

Four Hundred Billion Stars, by Paul McAuley  (P.K. Dick Award (tie)). Features a human telepath, a planet that was re-engineered and seeded by unknown aliens, and an attacking alien force.

Wetware, by Rudy Rucker (P.K. Dick Award (tie)). A ‘biopunk’ novel, the second in the  Ware Tetralogy, (1982’s Software, 1997’s Freeware, and 2000’s Realware).

Desolation Road, by Ian McDonald, (his first novel). An excellent writer, but I haven’t read this book.

Koko, by Peter Straub (World Fantasy Award). I haven’t read it (I’m not a horror devotee), but I’ve heard it is good

Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco. The author writes challenging, but worthwhile books.

Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson. The third book in his Sprawl trilogy. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books (Neuromancer and Count Zero); oddly, I haven’t read this one.

Noteworthy novels from 1988 that I did read:

Red Prophet, by Orson Scott Card (Locus Fantasy Award). The second book in Card’s The Tales of Alvin the Maker series (alternate history/fantasy set in early 19th Century America). I enjoyed Red Prophet, but not as much as the first book in the series (Seventh Son). Although the series contained some interesting sections, I lost interest around the third or fourth book…

Great Sky River, by Gregory Benford. This is the third in Benford’s Galactic Center series (a 6-volume series written from 1977 – 1995). I enjoyed the series (I can’t remember if I read all the books), but I don’t recall all the details: it involves evolved/transhuman families and intergalactic AIs who want to exterminate humanity. The series began on Earth, but the surviving humans are on a planet close to the Galactic Center in Great Sky River.

 The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, by Douglas Adams. The second fantasy-detective novel in the Dirk Gently series (the first was Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). The title comes from a description in Douglas Adams’ novel Life, the Universe and Everything, and is a depiction of Bowerick Wowbagger’s boring immortal life (it is also probably an allusion to Dark Night of the Soul, the poem by  Saint John of the Cross). This is an enjoyable novel, but not up to the standards of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.Story_of_the_Stone

The Story of the Stone, by Barry Hughart. The second in Hughart’s exceptional fantasy series (set in ‘an ancient China that never was’), which follows the exploits of Number Ten Ox (the narrator, an unusually strong peasant) and Master Li (a Sage with a slight flaw in his character). Highly recommended, along with Bridge of Birds (1984) and Eight Skilled Gentlemen (1990).

The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks. I enjoy Bank’s writing, although even his best science fiction novels tend to be flawed gems. The Player of Games is my personal favourite (the second offering in his Culture series): it follows the tribulations of Gurgeh, a famously skilful game player, who is blackmailed by Mawhrin-Skelinto (a somewhat unstable drone) into accepting an assignment with the Culture’s Special Circumstances (the “dirty work” department of the Culture’s society). This would certainly have been my pick for my favourite novel of the year if it hadn’t been for…

My pick for Retrospeculative Novel of 1988:

Cyteen, by C.J. Cherryh (Hugo Award & Locus Science fiction winner). This is one of my favourite science fiction novels. Cyteen is a highly psychological novel, and the plot is difficult to explain in a short review, but I’ll give it a try…

cyteenAriane Emory, one of fourteen Specials (certified geniuses), is murdered. With the aid of Denys and Giraud Nye, Emory ran Reseune, a scientific compound that creates computer-trained clones called azis (note: the computer training uses ‘tapes’, a dated aspect that must be overlooked to enjoy the novel). Another Special, Jordan Warrick (a former co-worker and bitter-rival of Emory) is suspected of murdering her. Jordon is likely innocent, but he confesses in order to protect his cloned son, Justin, and an azi, Grant, who is raised as Justin’s brother (though the relationship between Justin and Grant is deeper than brotherly love…).

Emory was involved in important research and, in an attempt to regain her knowledge, Ari, a clone of Emory, is produced. Ari is raised in an exacting manner in order to mature with the identical nature/nurture characteristics as Emory.

The novel explores psychological and political motivations; at times, I think I felt a psychological disorientation similar to that of characters in the book.

Initially, I wasn’t drawn into the novel, but I’m glad I persevered: after the first 50-100 pages I was totally absorbed.  C.J. Cherry has written several well-known science fiction books, but — in my opinion — this is her master-work (note: the author wrote a sequel in 2009 (Regenesis), but I haven’t read it yet).

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Retrospeculative View, 1985

Some of the notable short fiction of 1985:

Frederik Pohl’s Fermi and Frost, which won the Hugo Award for best short story (1986)

Nancy Kress’s Out of All Them Bright Stars, which won the Nebula Award for the best short story

James Tiptree, Jr.’s The Only Neat Thing to DoFantasy_and_Science_Fiction_March1985

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars

John Crowley’s Snow

Harlan Ellison’s Paladin of the Lost Hour, which won the Hugo Award for best novelette

Robert Silverberg’s Sailing to Byzantium, which won the Nebula Award for best novella

William Gibson’s The Winter Market

Roger Zelazny’s 24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai, which won the Hugo Award for best novella

George R. R. Martin’s Portraits of His Children, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette

 

Some of the films/Television from 1985:Brazil_DVDcover

Amazing Stories, a Steven Spielberg television show, similar in scope to The Twilight Zone.

Back to the Future, a lighthearted time-travel movie that became an integral part of pop culture and spawned two sequels.

Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s bizarre, but exceptional movie: a bureaucratic satire that is part slapstick, part totalitarian dystopia, part fantasy-daydream, and part love story.

Enemy Mine, a movie adaption of Barry B. Longyear’s 1979 novella.

 

Some of the notable novels of 1985:

Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. I enjoyed the novel when it was published but, as I’ve aged, it has lost its charm (my daughter enjoyed it immensely, so perhaps it is best read when young). A movie version was released in 2013; it followed the story fairly well, but I think it worked much better as a novel.

Greg Bear’s Blood Music, a story dealing with transhumanism and the nature of consciousness. The protagonist, Vergil Ulam, is a brilliant scientist who injects himself with intelligent nano-organisms, which evolve within his body and are eventually capable of transferring to other humans. The end of humanity is certain, but the novel portrays an optimistic future with a new, improved species. This is a classic novel, and it is a foundation work for ‘wet’ nanotech fiction.

The Postman, by David Brin, expanded from his excellent novella, which had a tighter focus and didn’t require lengthening in my opinion. The story was adapted into a tedious movie (1997).

R. A. MacAvoy’s The Book of Kells, Based on the sublimely illustrated Book of Kells. The novel blends Celtic history, time travel and magic.

James Tiptree, Jr’s Brightness Falls from the Air. James Triptree Jr. was a pseudonym for Alice Bradley Sheldon (she also wrote stories under the pen name Raccoona Sheldon). It was not generally known that her stories were written by a woman until many years after her first published stories, and she was instrumental in breaking sexist publishing barriers. Brightness Falls from the Air is well-written, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as her short fiction. The set-up was exceptional, and the plot was interesting, but I found some parts a bit manipulative, and the ending was disappointing. It is a work that has much to recommend, but I would more heartily recommend her short-story collection, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.

Schismatrix_Plus_coverSchismatrix, a Bruce Sterling novel featuring his Shaper/Mechanist vision (he also wrote five short-stories using the same concepts). There are four intelligent species in the novel: Humanity, which has evolved due to genetic and technological alteration; the Gasbags, space-roaming beings; the Swarm, a consortium of species that are constantly altering their hive-like composition to better adapt to the rigors of deep space; and the Investors, huge, interstellar-travelling reptoids. The complete Shaper/Mechanist stories (the novel and the short-stories) are now available in a single volume, Schismatrix Plus.

Brian W. Aldiss’ Helliconia Winter, which is the final volume in the Helliconia trilogy ( Helliconia Spring (1982), Helliconia Summer (1983) and Helliconia Winter). Helliconia is a planet inhabited by two intelligent species; a species similar to humanity, and the phagor, a sentient bovine species. The real protagonist is the planet itself, and the trilogy is a fictional model based on the Gaia hypothesis.

Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, which won the World Fantasy Award. I haven’t read this novel; it is a horror story, which is not my preferred genre (I do read an occasional horror story, but I tend to skip them unless something about it really intrigues me). In the Song of Kali, a journalist travels to Calcutta and becomes inextricably drawn in to strange, terrifying cult proceedings; the cult venerates Kali, Hindu Goddess of death and destruction.

Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. Le Guin, who is one of my favorite authors, but I haven’t read this book! From the University of California Press: Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is a major work of the imagination from one of America’s most respected writers of science fiction. More than five years in the making, it is a novel unlike any other. A rich and complex interweaving of story and fable, poem, artwork, and music, it totally immerses the reader in the culture of the Kesh, a peaceful people of the far future who inhabit a place called the Valley on the Northern Pacific Coast”.

Sekai no Owari to Hādo-Boirudo Wandārando by Haruki Murakami (Eng. Trans. 1991 by Alfred Birnbalm: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). I think this is one of Murakami’s best (almost on-par with Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). This excellent novel is divided into two alternating views: the Hard-Boiled Wonderland, set in past-tense and in the ‘real’ world, and the End of the World, set in the present tense and possibly in a world that only exists deep within the protagonist’s mind.

And my pick for the Retrospeculative novel of 1985 is…

The Handmaiden’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and won the 1985 Governor General’s Award (Canada), and the Handmaid's_Tale_coverfirst Arthur C. Clarke Award (1987). As a Canadian, I find it a bit risky to admit this to the world, but this was the first of Ms. Atwood’s novels that I truly enjoyed. Her prose is consistently excellent; unfortunately, I rarely get drawn into her stories and find them a bit tedious (surely a lack in my intellectual maturation). The Handmaiden’s Tale is set in a dystopian, near-future America, which has been taken over by a racist, homophobic, moral-majority, the Sons of Jacob, who rename their claimed land the Republic of Gilead. Birth rates have declined due to sterility and the protagonist, Offred, is a concubine, a ‘handmaiden’, who is used by Fred (The Commander) as brood-stock. The novel is narrated by Offred (Of Fred), who has recorded events from her life as a handmaiden, as well as flashbacks to a time before the revolution that was launched by the Sons of Jacob. The story flows effortlessly, the character development is excellent, and the story is filled with tension. There are several disturbing sections, but a ribbon of hope runs through the plot.

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Retrospeculative View, 1984

Some of the notable short speculative fiction:asimovs_mag_june-1984

Gene Wolfe’s A Cabin on the Coast

Octavia E. Butler’s Bloodchild, which won the Hugo Award for best novelette

David Brin’s The Crystal Spheres, which won the Hugo Award for best short story (1985). Within the story, Brin presents a possible explanation for the Fermi Paradox

John Varley’s PRESS ENTER, which won the Hugo for best novella

George Alec Effinger’s The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything

Gardner Dozois’s Morning Child, which won the Nebula Award for best short story

Lucius Shepard’s Salvador, which won the Locus Poll award for Best Short Story and the SF Chronicle award for Short Story

Some of the movies and television of 1984:

The Transformers, the cartoon series that launched a franchise that is still spitting out movies.

Highway to Heaven, a fluffy, feel-good series about an angel that helps troubled people overcome difficulties.

2010, which wasbased on Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two, a sequel to the wonderful 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). 2010 was not as powerful as the original.ghostbusters_logo

Dune, based on Frank Herbert’s novel. Read the book.

Ghostbusters, a ‘paranormal’ comedy that was loved by critics and the general audience.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. I loved the original series when it was first broadcasted (yes, I’m that old!), but I was never a fan of the movies.

Some of the notable novels of 1984:

Vernor Vinge’s Peace War, which is about a group of scientist who invent an apparatus that is capable of producing an impenetrable force field. The scientist use the apparatus to end warfare: a force field is produced around any group that endangers peace, and the scientists prohibit technological progress in a bid to maintain control. A group of rebels discover that the force fields are actually stasis fields; within the spherical fields, time is frozen. Additionally, the fields collapse after a specific time has elapsed. As usual, Vernor Vinge has created an intriguing story. The novel has two sequels: The Ungoverned (a 1985 novella), and Marooned in Realtime (a 1986 novel). Across Realtime is an omnibus edition that contains all three stories.

Octavia E. Butler’s Clay’s Ark, a book in her Patternmaster series (each book can be enjoyed as a stand-alone): Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay’s Ark (1984): the series is available in an omnibus edition, Seed to Harvest. The series depicts a secret history, beginning in ancient Egypt and extending into the far future and involves eugenics, an extraterrestrial plague (the clay ark disease), and telepathic mind control. It is interesting to study the evolution in the writer’s craft as the series develops.

Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, which won the BSFA Award and the world Fantasy Award (a tie). Mythago Wood began as a short story (1979), was expanded slightly to a novella (1981), and was eventually worked into a novel that spawned a series, the Mythago Wood cycle (aka the Ryhope Wood series). The novel is set in England, by a fictional forest (the Ryhope Wood), just after WW II. After recovering from injuries sustained in the war, Stephen Huxley returns to his childhood home where his older brother Christian now lives (both parents have passed away). The brothers had often seen mythagos in Ryhope Woods, but their father had told them they were only peripatetic gypsies. However, their father, George Huxley, had been secretly studying the woods, and he’d kept thorough records of his adventures. Christian followed in his father’s footsteps, and Stephen eventually realizes that the mythagos are real. It is a wonderfully rendered fantasy world; the prose paints enigmatic tones, and English, Celtic and Welsh mythology are woven into the tale. A classic.

neuromancer_coverWilliam Gibson’s Neuromancer, a cyberpunk novel that defined the genre: it was the first novel to win the Nebula, Hugo, and PK Dick Awards. The novel is the first book in the Sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)), and is set in the dystopian, criminal districts of Japan’s Chiba City. The story follows Henry Dorsett Case: at one time, he was a gifted computer hacker (a cowboy, a rustler), but as the novel begins, he has been reduced to a life as a bottom-feeding hustler because he had the audacity to cheat powerful people. Case is approached by Molly Millions (first introduced in Gibson’s short story Johnny Mneumonic); Molly is a street samurai, and is working as a mercenary for Armitage, a shady ex-military man. Armitage promises Case a pathway out of his dismal existence, but Case must successfully complete a hacking job first. The plot is trite and jarringly convoluted, but the writing is dense and exciting; Neuomancer may not seem revolutionary today, but it was instrumental in the explosive acceptance of a new sub-genre, which was dismissed as yesterday’s news by many writers shortly after it was born, yet still survives as a sub-genre thirty years later.

Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds, which won the world Fantasy Award (a tie). Subtitled A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was, it is the first tale of Number Ten Ox, a robust young man and the story’s narrator, and Master Li Kao, who has a ‘slight flaw in his character.’ Hughart adapted several myths and events from China’s history (in particular, the tale of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl) into an enjoyable, well-written story that transports the reader to an alternate realm. The characters are wonderfully flawed, but likeable, and the imagery and ambience created by Hughart’s prose draws the reader into the pages of the novel. In a different year, this could easlily have been chosen as my Retrospeculative pick as the best novel. Hughart wrote two more Number Ten Ox novels that were almost as charming as this one (The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen).

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1984 brought exceptional novels by Vernor Vinge and Octavia Butler, two fantasy classics, and a seminal cyberpunk novel that won three major awards and I still haven’t declared my Retrospeculative novel for the year. What gives? The novel I’ve picked was mostly ignored by the award categories; the author had won awards for previous works, but I think the novel he wrote this year is his masterpiece;

Without further ado, my pick for Retrospeculative novel of 1984 is…

Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, by Samuel R. Delany. IMHO this is Delany’s crowning achievement in science fiction; it is a brilliant work.

Delany_SIMPLGOS_coverTogether with Dhalgren (1975) and the Return to Nevèrÿon series (1979 – 1987), Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand represents, to me, Samuel R. Delany at the height of his speculative literate powers. I enjoy just about anything Mr. Delany writes, but Stars is a mature, literate work that has aged better than others; it is wonderfully written, and the immersion in alien worlds and culture is unlike anything else I’ve encountered (the Nevèrÿon saga — allegorical sword and sorcery— is somewhat comparable, but I found it more pedantic). Stars has many themes: cultural and social diversity as a function of hierarchical structure, gender, technology, the role of information on civilization, and sexuality (sex is a significant theme: if you’re prudish, or homophobic, you’d best give this book a pass). And it has an enchanting chapter about a dragon ‘hunt.’

Delany did a wonderful job with gender; sometimes it’s difficult, or impossible, to identify the sex of a character. All characters are referred to as she (her, woman, and womankind are also used) unless the person is sexually interesting to the protagonist, Marq Dyeth, who would then refer to the character as him or he. The terms male and female are used, but they are often insignificant to Marq, who is a male from an affluent family. Marq is attracted to certain other males (in particular, those with bitten, dirty fingernails, a Delany trope). Fairly deep into the story, Marq meets an underprivileged male, Rat Korga (first introduced in the novel’s lengthy prologue), who is Marq’s ideal erotic partner (how and why they meet is an important plot-point). Rat Korga was a slave on the planet Rhyonon, and he was the sole survivor when Rhyonon was destroyed (presumably by cultural fugue, which occurs when a civilization’s culture and technology spiral out of control).

It is a dense book, filled with  ponderings and descriptive prose: the plot doesn’t move along quickly, but the patient reader is rewarded by the prose and the story’s construction (as an interesting aside, Delany uses subscripts to denote the relative importance of job-related words: “Marq Dyeth’s vocation1is as a industrial diplomat1 between star systems, but when he returns to his family home he is a docent2for visiting dignitaries.”Apparently, the subscript convention is based on an aspect of Alfred Korzybski’s theory of general semantics: see the style section in thisWikipedia article for more information).

Delany had originally planned the story as a diptych, but the second book, The Splendor And Misery Of Bodies, Of Cities was never completed (Delany’s motivation withered because of two separate events: he and his partner (Frank Romeo) broke-up, and the AIDS epidemic began, impelling him to work on Nevèrÿon). Delany completed 150 pages of the draft for the second book in the diptych; however, because of conflicting priorities, he suspects that he will never finish it; nevertheless, as a brilliant work of fiction, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is able to stand on its own.

I didn’t find Stars too demanding, but I suppose some readers might find it dry and interminable: the novel is certainly not plot driven. Perhaps it is one of those novels that demand an acquired taste (a bit of postmodern between the covers), but I recommend it to readers who enjoy a immersive, literary, science fiction experience.

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Retrospeculative View, 1987

Some of the notable short fiction of 1987:

Orson Scott Card’s Eye for Eye, which won the Hugo for best novella

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Blind Geometer, which won the Nebula Award for best novella

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Asimov’s Magazine; July, 1987

Robert Silverberg’s The Secret Sharer

Pat Murphy’s Rachel in Love, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight, which won the Hugo Award for best novelette

Kate Wilhelm’s Forever Yours, Anna, which won the Nebula Award for best short story

Lawrence Watt-Evans’ Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers, which won the Hugo Award for best short story

 

TV/Movies of 1987:

Star Trek The Next Generation (1987 – 1994), a re-boot of the franchise. I wanted to like this TV series, and I gave it a good try, but it didn’t break much new ground, and even replayed many of the same themes supplied in the original series. There were a few moments that I found interesting, but I was never fully engaged in the series.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987 – 1998). I’ve never been able to sit through an entire episode, but this cartoon became part of pop-culture.

Beauty_and_the_Beast

Hamilton & Pearlman

Beauty and the Beast (1987 – 1990). My wife watched this TV drama, and I managed to sit through several episodes, and it seemed like a fairly well-designed show, but I’ve never been able to enjoy a series that relied on an ongoing story-line. The series starred Linda Hamilton (of Terminator fame) as ‘beauty’ and Ron Pearlman (of Hellboy fame) as the beast.

The Princess Bride, a wonderful movie adaption of William Golding’s 1973 fantasy-romance.

Predator: Arnold Schwarzenegger battles an alien warrior.

Robocop, the first of a franchise.

Notable novels of 1987:

David Brin’s The Uplift War, which won the Hugo Award. I haven’t read this novel, but I read its predecessor, Startide Rising, which I really wanted to like, but didn’t care for it: it is a good genre novel, but I found it a bit unsophisticated (my snobbishness is showing through once more). If you enjoyed Startide Rising I’m sure you’d enjoy the Uplift War.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams, who described his book as a “…thumping good detective-ghost-horror-who dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic.” It was enjoyable, but not as clever as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Stanisław Lem’s Pokój na Ziemi (English Trans, Peace on Earth, by Elinor Ford with Michael Kandel, 1994). I haven’t read this novel, but I’ve read many other stories involving Ijon Tichy, and they are generally excellent.

Pat Murphy’s The Falling Woman, which won the Nebula Award. The protagonist, Elizabeth Butler, attempted suicide when she was a young woman; after her recovery, she was able to observe ancient Mayan spirits. As the story begins, Elizabeth is studying an archeological dig-site in Mexico. When her ex-husband passes away, Elizabeth’s estranged daughter travels to the site and the two women endeavor to reconnect. Elizabeth soon finds that a Mayan priestess is able to see and talk with her; the connection has the potential to provide Elizabeth with extremely valuable information, but the information Elizabeth desires will only be given to her if a sacrifice is made. Elizabeth must choose between the living and the dead. A very interesting, unusual novel.Card_Seventh_Son_cover

Orson Scott Card’s Seventh Son, the first book in The Tales of Alvin Maker series, which is an early 19th century American alternate-history fantasy that uses superstition and folklore as the basis for magic elements. I enjoyed Seventh Son but, as the series progressed (six books so far), I thought the story ran out of steam: the plot seemed to progress very slowly and I became indifferent (note: OSC has also written two short-stories and a poem that tie into the story). There is one more book in the series that has not been published, Master Alvin, and I’ll probably read it for completeness, but I’m not clamoring for its release.

Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn, which is the first book in her Lilith’s Brood trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago). After a group of fanatics precipitate a nuclear war, humanity is all but wiped out. The only human survivors are saved by the oankali, an alien species with sensory tentacles covering their bodies. The oankali consist of three separate sexes (male, female, and ooloi), and they have mastered genetic manipulation. The novel — the entire trilogy — investigates sexuality, gender, visual prejudice, genetic engineering, and survival instincts.

Pat Cadigan’s Mindplayers, a cyberpunk novel that meanders with a dream-like quality. The novel depicts a society in which an individual’s personality can be modified; reworked, like software code. The ambling plot includes the use of drugs, computer-brain interfaces and telepathy-technology, to examine possible avenues of the human mind. Pat Cadigan has been labelled as The Queen of Cyberpunk, which is probably the easiest sub-genre to pigeon-hole her oeuvre into, but I think the bulk of her work could better be described as transhuman fiction. Her work explores the possible liaison of the human mind and technology, the effects that technological-enhancement could have on society for the pioneers that embrace modification, and for those who resist change.

Michael Swanwick’s Vacuum Flowers, a cyberpunk novel that was one of the first to use the term wetware. The protagonist, Rebel Elizabeth Mudlark, is a dead woman who escapes a ‘personality entertainment consortium’ by absconding with the body of another woman, Eucrasia Walsh. Eucracia rents out her body for wetware assessment and, although her mind is not in her body, dormant personality attributes awaken as Rebel escapes. Vacuum flowers are bio-engineered weeds that are able to live in space: Rebel finds work removing these weeds from the outer ports of canister worlds, artificial constructs that orbit the sun. Other intriguing ideas are the hive mind, The Comprise (which controls the Earth), and genetically engineered Dyson trees that grow in comets. The beginning of the book was a bit absurd, but the story grows into something quite grand. I’ve only read one other book by Swanwick (Stations of the Tide), but I think I’ll have to search for some of his other gems.

Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. This novel created a sub-genre, the fantasy of manners (I read somewhere that the author referred to the novel as a “…melodrama of manners.”). I read the novel years ago (possibly shortly after it was published) and, although I didn’t love the story, it has stuck with me, probably because it was so different from the norm, the characterizations were excellent, and the descriptive prose painted an interesting and lucid picture. The novel was quite a departure from the archetypal fantasy I’d read previously: there are no magical elements (the action is set on a different world, or an alternate reality), and there is no ‘quest’ or other plot-point that is necessary to save the realm, empire, monarchy, or world. It is a story steeped in swordplay and passion; in particular, it is the tale of a swordsman’s love for another man: an unusual and interesting decision for a novelist of the time.

I’ve decided to roam outside my usual box to pick my Retrospeculative novel of 1987, which is…

Watchmen, by Alan Moore (writer), Dave Gibbons (artist), and John Higgins (colorist). So far, this is the only graphic novel that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. Watchmen depicts an alternate reality, a representation of America in the 1980s that included the existence of superheroes who significantly altered the outcome of the Vietnam War and the political landscape of the United States (hence, the entire world). Although called ‘superheroes’, there is only one watchmen-covercharacter — Doctor Manhattan — with superhuman abilities (his powers are a result of an Intrinsic Field Subtractor experiment gone horribly wrong). The other characters have no superpowers: The Comedian, who is murdered in the first chapter; Rorschach, a vigilante who attempts to discover who murdered The Comedian (to hide his true identity, Rorschach wears a white mask with a shifting black pattern); Nite Owl, who utilizes owl-inspired machinery; Ozymandias, a genius who retired from the superhero trade to become a very successful entrepreneur; and Silk Spectre, Doctor Manhattan’s lover as the novel opens but Silk Spectre becomes involved with Nite Owl as the novel proceeds. The book is also peppered with chapters of back-story that contain more written word than graphic representation, including back-story on the previous generation of ‘superheroes,’ some insight into the interrelations between the characters, and the social and political atmosphere of the alternate reality.

As the story unfolds, America is progressing steadily closer to nuclear war with the Soviet Union (each chapter’s cover page includes a doomsday clock that represents how close the world is to nuclear annihilation: the first chapter shows the clock set at twelve minutes to midnight and each subsequent chapter shows the clock one minute closer to midnight. There are twelve chapters). The story is revealed in a non-linear narrative and the plot revolves around the relationships between the superheroes, the political climate, and the attempts to discover who murdered the Comedian.

There are countless visual symbols within the book; in particular, a blood-stained smiley face and many other shapes that mirror it (the bloody smiley face can also be seen as a representation of the doomsday clock). An interesting story-within-the-story portrays a comic book, Tales of the Black Freighter, one of the pirate comic books that became popular after the advent of superheroes within the social scene.

The art and the depth of story make this a fascinating foray into the realm of the graphic novel.

Watchmen has garnered acclaim both in the comic world and the mainstream press, and has possibly gained a higher degree of praise in mainstream circles. Watchmen was among Times list of the 100 Best English Language Novels published since 1923, and in 2009 Entertainment Weekly recognized it as # 13 on their list of the 50 best novels printed in the last 25 years, and Watchmen won a Hugo Award in the Other Forms category; interestingly, The Comics Journal ranked Watchmen quite far down the list (number 91) of best English-language comics of the 20th century.

Watchmen expanded the possibilities of the graphic novel and created serious interest from readers who wouldn’t ordinarily peruse a comic book.

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Retrospeculative View, 1986

Some of the short speculative fiction of 1986:

Robert Silverberg’s Gilgamesh in the Outback, the Hugo Award winner for best novella

Lucius Sherpard’s R&R, the Nebula Award winner for best novellaAsimovs_LShepard_R&R_illust_J_K_Potter

Roger Zelazny’s Permafrost, the Hugo Award winner for best novelette

Kate Wilhelm’s The Girl Who Fell into the Sky, the Nebula Award winner for best novelette

Orson Scott Card’s Hatrack River, the World Fantasy Award winner for best novella

Greg Bear’s Tangents, the Nebula Award winner for best short story

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Some of the movies/television shows of 1986

Alf: a TV show about an alien that crash-landed its spaceship into a family’s garage. The alien character, the only puppet in this live-action sitcom, was nicknamed Alf (Alien Life form).

Aliens, the first of a franchise. I have very few memories of this film, but the alien popping out of the crewman’s chest is seared into permanent memory.Little_Shop_of_Horrors_poster

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. A humorous, but hokey Star Trek movie, complete with humpback whales, a dangerous alien probe/artifact, and time travel.

The Fly, a remake of the 1958 film (which was based on George Langelaan’s 1957 short story). The movie was a critical and commercial success; personally, I’m not a big fan of this sub-genre.

Little Shop of Horrors:a musical-comedy that was based on an off-Broadway show (which was, in turn, based on a low-budget film). The movie was a critical success and enjoyed commercial success when it was released on home video (VHS & Beta).

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Some of the notable novels of 1986:

Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Mirror of Her Dreams, the first half of his fantasy diptych, Mordant’s Need. I recall enjoying the series, but not falling in love with it. I think that The Mirror of Her Dreams ended with a cliffhanger, so it would be best to have the second book (A Man Rides Through) handy if you plan to read the books.

speaker_graphic_novel_coverSpeaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card, which is the sequel to Ender’s Game. Speaker for the Dead, like its predecessor, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. I loved this book when it was first published; I was a huge fan of Orson Scott Card, and this was probably my favourite book of his (I also had a special place for Songmaster and Hot Sleep (later amalgamated (to its detriment, I think)  into The Worthing Saga)). I have difficulties reading Card’s novels now; it is unfortunate, but they haven’t aged along with me as close friends.

This is the Way the World Ends, by James Morrow. An apocalyptic, post-nuclear war novel that is blessed with some fine writing, but I found it to be a bit of a mish-mash of science fiction and fantasy, and odd things happened without any depth of explanation.

When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger. I’d heard a lot of good things about this novel, so I read it recently; unfortunately, it wasn’t really my kind of book. It is well written and there are some poignant sections, but it didn’t quite connect with me.

Ken Grimwood’s Replay, which won the World Fantasy Award (1988). I haven’t read this novel, but it is mentioned as inspiration for the movie Groundhog Day. The plot involves the re-birth of the main character in an earlier version of his physical body, but with his memories intact.

Marooned in Realtime, by Vernor Vinge. I’m not sure why, but I’m not a big fan of Vernor Vinge (he has the chops & plots that should engage me, but I’ve never connected with his stories). I haven’t read this novel, but it seems interesting and I may give it a try some day. Marooned… is a sequel to The Peace War, yet apparently can be read as a stand-alone story. The plot includes a murder mystery, time travel, and a technological singularity from which the characters in the novel appear to be the only humans who survived.

Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. The novel is set in the far future on Shora, a fictitious moon that is covered with water. I haven’t read the novel, but it has been reviewed favourably. The inhabitants of the water-world of Shora are genetically engineered aquatic humans, and they are all female. The inhabitants are referred to as Sharers, and they manipulate (in a benign way) the world’s ecological environment through the use of biotechnology. Their society is based on egalitarian eco-feminism and they solve disputes using nonviolent resistance.

William Gibson’s Count Zero. I think I enjoyed reading this novel even more than Neuromancer, but it didn’t have the same impact that Gibson’s first novel had. Neuromancer was raw, exciting, and unique: Count Zero couldn’t possibly break as much new ground. William Gibson strikes me as an intelligent, well-read man: I haven’t read any of his recent works, but I attended an event a few years ago in which he read from a recent novel (Zero History) and participated in an interesting discussion with Douglas Coupland.

 

And my choice as the Retrospeculative novel of 1986 is …

Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, originally published in German as Das Parfum: Die Geschiechte eines Morders (translated into English by John E. Woods), which won the World Fantasy Award.

The novel’s principle character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is an ‘olfactory vampire.’ He was born with no body scent, but with a superb sense of smell. Perfume_coverAt the beginning of the novel he is a sympathetic character, but the reader quickly discovers that he is an amoral sociopath. Grenouille preys on innocence, and murders young women so that he can acquire their distinctive aromas.

The novel traces the life of Grenouille, whose murderous subsistence is revealed in an odd, matter-of-fact manner, casting an eerie mantle over the reader. Grenouille is obsessed and quite insane, but he progresses through life in a coherent manner and becomes a master perfumer.

The novel, a historical fantasy, is set in 18th-century France and is wonderfully researched and presented. This re-imagining of the Dracula story is steeped in a remarkably realistic, sensual wickedness. The descriptive prose pulled me in, somewhat reluctantly, because horror is not a genre I readily enjoy. The scenes, described with an unusually dense array of olfactory sensations, provide a disturbing, but rewarding experience.

Perfume is a wonderful mixture of horror, history, and mystery-suspense; the reader follows the criminally insane thoughts and actions of Grenouille, wondering if his twisted, inhuman soul will be brought to justice.

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