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Ferocious Poet's Heart Commanding:
An Interview With John C. Wright

An interview with Nick Gevers
April 2002

The Golden Age: A Romance of the Far Future
John C. Wright
John C. Wright is a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor. He presently lives in Virginia, with his wife, the authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their two children. He has published shorter works in Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, one of which was selected to appear in Year's Best SF 3 edited by David G. Hartwell for 1997.

John C. Wright Website
ISFDB Bibliography

With the publication in April 2002 of his first novel, The Golden Age: A Romance of the Far Future, John C. Wright has seized the attention of much of the SF world. Reviewers have spoken of him as equivalent to William Gibson and Gene Wolfe in potential importance, and there is substance to these assessments. Grand in imagination, fabulous in its elegance, The Golden Age has an astonishing glamour. Telling of the revolt of Phaethon, an ambitious planetary engineer, against a glorious but complacent utopia hundreds of thousands or millions of years hence, the book applies immense stylistic and philosophical sophistication to the fundamental matter of the space operas of SF's own Golden Age. It is a transcendent planetary romance, a postmodern apotheosis of Jack Vance.

On the page, John Wright exudes a robust magniloquence. Interviewing him by e-mail in April 2002, I set out to get a first direct glimpse of the person and the ethos behind a truly prodigious debut.

Before we begin, I want to reassure your readers that the second half of The Golden Age sequence is already written, edited, and proof-read. The second volume is called Phoenix Exultant, and it is due for release in 2003 AD. It is in this volume that the story of Phaethon concludes, and The Golden Age series comes to an end.

There's a flamboyant erudition to your writing that may or may not reflect your true personality. What's your personal and professional background? Are you, in fact, flamboyantly erudite?
Let me tell you about my background, and you may draw your own conclusions.

I went to St. John's College in Annapolis, which is the home of the "Great Books" program. There are no tests and no grades at that school, and no lecture classes. There is never a time when the student is not allowed to speak.

There are no secondary texts; we do not read some blowhard second-guessing what the geniuses of history thought; we read the geniuses in the original.

We read the Great Books of Western Literature in chronological order, from Homer and Aristotle, through Hobbes and Shakespeare, Newton and Pascal, to Freud and the Federalist Papers. By graduation, the student knows Greek and Latin grammar, logic, and rhetoric, geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music.

I can tell you what such an education does for you. You are like a man with a memory in a land of amnesiacs.

All the sophomoric ideas presently being preached from the pulpits of the pundits, all the clever policies of clever politicians: it has all been done before. All their errors were refuted long, long ago. Aristotle debunked Marx two thousand years before Marx put pen to paper. The Twentieth Century A.D. might have been spared a great deal of grief and bloodshed, had she remembered the Fifth Century B.C.

[After qualifying to practice law in several jurisdictions, Wright became disillusioned with the discipline, which he saw as cynical, without authentic moral foundation. Working for a local newspaper in Maryland, he outspokenly assisted in the publication's campaign against ingrained municipal corruption, and was persecuted for his pains. Moving to Virginia, he found little authentic journalistic ethos at a second paper; becoming a technical writer, he was better able to support his family, and could even set aside time to produce fiction...]

Your career as an SF writer began with a few short stories, of which one in particular, "Guest Law", drew favorable notice. When did you begin writing SF? Was your short fiction a conscious apprenticeship for novel writing, as is so often the case?

I began writing SF at age nine. My first completed manuscript, "Agent of Nesx", has not yet been typed up or sold to a publisher, as it was written in crayon on yellow foolscap. My career was on a temporary hiatus between nine and nineteen, when my second manuscript "Nigh-Forgotten Sun" reached over 1045 pages before it was abandoned.

At around twenty-nine I set myself to sell some short stories. For one whole summer and fall, I wrote one short story per week, every week, and I always made my deadline. At the end of six months, I had 24 completed short stories.

My first sale was "Not Born a Man", to a small magazine called Aberrations. My second was "Farthest Man from Earth", which took place in the same background universe; "Guest Law" was the third. These last two were both sold to Asimov's, where I had the honor of appearing between the same covers as famous authors whose works I had adored as a child. "Guest Law" was reprinted in Year's Best SF 3, edited by David Hartwell, who also bought The Golden Age. The sale was made when I was thirty-nine years old.

Writing short fiction was indeed a conscious apprenticeship, meant to lead to getting a novel published.

It is a paradox that a starting writer cannot get an agent unless he has a publisher, and he cannot get a publisher unless he has an agent. My way out of the paradox was provided by my short stories. "Guest Law" drew the attention of David Hartwell, who approached me and asked if I had any novel-length work to sell; I had approached Jim Frenkel (at that time, of Bluejay Books) and asked him to represent me; once he heard that an editor had expressed interest in reading my manuscript, Mr. Frenkel agreed. Then Mr. Frenkel harassed Mr. Hartwell into buying the manuscript; which exasperated Mr. Hartwell into hiring Mr. Frenkel, who now works for Tor books. I was able to find my present agent, Mr. Jack Byrne of Sternig & Byrne Literary Agency, with little effort, thanks to a tip from Mr. Frenkel.

One very odd thing about all these folks, however. None of them want to be called by their last names. They are all accomplished professionals in their fields, but they want people to address them by their first names or nick-names, as if we were all schoolboys in the schoolyard. Go figure.

Reviewers of The Golden Age, and the publicity writers at Tor Books, have speculated as to which previous SF writers might have helped inspire such a remarkable first novel. Van Vogt, Zelazny, and Cordwainer Smith, says the book's cover; I say Jack Vance (whose Emphyrio makes a guest appearance in the novel), Alfred Bester, and Gene Wolfe. Whom would you acknowledge?
A.E. Van Vogt formed my childhood picture of what a hero was. Van Vogt portrayed a man who was more sane, more rational, than his foes, was able to overcome them. No other writer's works fill me with the sense of awe and wonder as does Van Vogt.

Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe are masters of style, and I filch from them without a twinge of remorse. The men are brilliant. They are the only authors I enjoyed as a child whom I can still enjoy as an adult.

Of the two of them, I have a mild preference for Jack Vance. Gene Wolfe, in fact, is too brilliant for me: I cannot figure out his puzzles. The mysteries in Jack Vance, in contrast, are honest and fair, and the clues are there. I recommend all my readers to rush right out and buy copies of his Planet of Adventure series (City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir, The Pnume) and his Demon Princes series (The Star King, The Killing Machine, The Palace of Love, The Face, The Book of Dreams). Do not wait to read the rest of this interview: go, buy those books, read them, and then return here, Mr. Gevers and I will wait.

[I had read and loved all those books by the age of seventeen -- NG.]

Cordwainer Smith and Roger Zelazny are also particular favorites of mine. Certainly the theme in The Golden Age that mankind will reinvent itself in the far future is a theme Cordwainer Smith portrayed with heartbreaking clarity.

I am planning on filching from Zelazny in an upcoming novel entitled Orphans of Chaos, which portrays the Twelve Gods of Mount Olympus as involved in similar intrigues as his Nine Princes of Mount Kolvir in Amber. Since he filched from Jacobean playwrights, I hope he would not have minded.

I will point out that two of my favorite novels, Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber and Van Vogt's Players of Null-A, both star men whose memories have been lost, who are trying to recapture their true identities. The resemblance to my novel The Golden Age is not accidental.

You have missed the mark on Alfred Bester. I did not put any deliberate references to him in my novel, and his is a style I neither admire nor copy. Though I enjoyed The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man, I didn't like his wordsmithing, nor his silly habit of spilling words across the page not in rows.

You have also missed the most important reference in my novel: I am writing in imitation of, and as a rebuke to, Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. My subtitle "Romance of the Far Future" was meant to echo his subtitle, which (if memory serves me) was "A Romance of the Near and Far Future".

As much as I admire him, Mr. Stapledon and I are philosophical foes. At the zenith of his human evolution, his Eighteenth Human Race on Neptune has a communist utopia with no private property; at the zenith of my human evolution, my Seventh Mental Structure is a libertarian utopia with no public property. His Neptunians are wiped out when the sun increases radiation output; my Helion re-engineers the internal plasma structure of the sun to control the radiation output.

I have also filched concepts and terms unashamedly from David Zindell, Poul Anderson, Homer, and Greg Bear. Anyone who likes my work, please read the men I am impersonating. They are giants.

You have a clear preference for far-future SF. Why is this?
There are three reasons.

First, it is pusillanimous to write of small things when one can write of great. The abyss of time holds wonders too large to fit inside one small world, or the narrow confines of one cramped century. Science Fiction is meant to tell us traveler's tales of places and aeons men cannot reach, but imagination can.

Second, it was a challenge I saw too few authors these days attempting to face. If one is going to write about the future, it might as well be the farthest future that can be dreamed.

I am a space opera writer. Perhaps I am the last of my kind. I like large themes, thunder, fury, and wonder. Why blow up a city when you can blow up a world? Why launch a starship one kilometer long, when you can launch a super-starship a thousand kilometers long? Why build space armor out of carbon-steel when you can built it out of adamantium?

Third, near future fiction dates itself, and my ambition is not to write for this generation only, but for the ages. Read the introduction to Falling Stars by Michael Flynn. His answer to the question is quite witty, as he bemoans the fact that several of the inventions he envisioned had come to pass by the time his work saw print.

The Golden Age is stylistically ambitious, but also packed with concept. It's almost as if each aspect of technique is challenging, egging the other on. Are you ever concerned some readers may find the mixture too rich?
I am not certain how to answer the question. I write as my ferocious poet's heart commands; I fear I do not really have any particular readers in mind when I am scribbling. It is certainly my hope to entertain the dear readers, but I could not write for tastes I do not share, even if I would.

Indeed, I must say that I am not concerned that some readers might be excluded by my work; I am far more concerned that no one at all will be included, if you take my meaning.

I am always surprised and pleased and flattered that even a single reader thinks my daydreams worth bothering to read. If the one reader I am meant to please smiles at the end of idle afternoon, then my book has found a fit audience.

If he shells out cold hard cash to buy the sequel, so much the better.

As for the particulars of why I chose a non-journalistic style, I can only say that I envisioned the far future as ornate and strange and elegant, and used language meant to capture that atmosphere.

I am borrowing a stylistic trick from Robert Heinlein when, instead of describing some futuristic object or artifact, I merely call it by a suggestive name, like "thought-box" or "dreaming helmet". Like all stylistic tricks, it has advantages and disadvantages.

Other books may yet employ different styles, as need be. The Golden Age is only the first half of my first work.

By naming the major characters of The Golden Age after mythical figures -- Phaethon, Helion -- you create an immediate intertextuality with myth. Why this technique? Are you aping myths, or revising them?
I am aping myths. I believe I admitted to being a shameless thief of the works of better men than myself four questions ago.

I am also revising the myth. It is not at all certain that my Phaethon will be shot down by the powers-that-be before the end. Please read the sequel Phoenix Exultant to find out how the exciting story ends. I will point out there is a scene where Phaethon discovers why he chose the name he did, and it was based on his own re-interpretation of the original. His daughter does the same.

I am also ignoring myths. Any reader not familiar with the original namesakes of my characters should be able to enjoy the story perfectly well.

Greek myths are heroic, noble and tragic; but the American Dream is heroic, comical, and uplifting. Americans are a people in whom overweening ambition is rewarded, not punished. The Wright Brothers did not have their wings melt when they flew too high. Perhaps their wings were more soundly built than those of Icarus. I am certainly writing for those who believe in the American Dream.

More generally, The Golden Age explicitly invokes and evokes identifiable historical eras -- ancient Greece and Rome, Victorian England -- both in overall atmosphere and in specific simulation. Why so much retrospection in a far-future novel, and why those particular periods?
There are three reasons. The first is stylistic. By having antiquarians as my main characters, I was writing from the viewpoint of someone a contemporary reader could comprehend. My characters can make references to things, or use turns of phrase, which might sound normal to the present-day ear.

Indeed, one reviewer (after a very kind review, I must say) said that it was a flaw in the story, and that it staggered belief, that a book written in AD 2002 and set in the far future would star a hero and heroine who supported the values and morality, the "sexual status quo" of the mid-20th-century. I fear the reviewer had missed the mark by one hundred years. The sexual status quo the hero and heroine maintain is from AD 1850, the mid-19th-Century.

It is a very common trick of SF writers to dress up the future to look like the past, because this conveys a sense of a time which is somewhat like ours, but not too much like ours. This is why the laser-sword is the weapon of choice in the Galactic Empire, why the Marines of the Galactic Patrol use the space-axe to clobber Space Pirates, and why the citizens of Everytown in Things to Come wear togas.

The second reason is realistic. We modern men are more aware of the past than our ancestors, to whom the past was a matter of myth and lore. I assumed this process would continue, and that our progeny will know more of our forefathers, and in more detail, than we.

Also, I find it frankly ridiculous to read SF tales where no one seems to know about World War II, not to mention the Crusades or the Peloponnesian Wars. These are going to be our children. Will we truly teach them nothing at all? (Public school teachers need not answer the question; I am familiar with your work.)

The third reason is allegoric. On the surface, the Roman and Victorian periods were times of high civilization, golden ages, and so comparisons with my invented far-future society were inevitable.

Beneath the surface, I will point out that both were periods when civilization had to make a decision whether to remain true to itself, and expand, or betray itself, and decline.

The Romans chose poorly, trading Republican stoicism for Imperium, luxury and stagnation. Queen Victoria's people chose correctly, choosing parliamentary democracy over Monarchy, and middle-class virtue over Regency corruption. The Roman choice led to the Dark Ages; the Victorian choice led to the Industrial Revolution.

The folk in my novel, and the civilization depicted there, face the same choice. If they betray the great dream that made them great, they will perish.

I leave it for the reader to determine whether the author is making a comment about the times in which he also lives.

Could The Golden Age fairly be described as a novel of manners?
I am not sure. Define your terms. Is Emphyrio by Jack Vance a novel of manners? If the science-fiction authors I am cribbing from were cribbing in turn from the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, some of their influence may have appeared in my novel. It was no conscious part of this author's intent, however.

It's fairly clear from the start that The Golden Age of the book's title is a facade -- probably more of a Silver Age, if that. What would constitute an authentic Golden Age?
Again, define your terms. How golden does a time have to be before you call it gold? The Neptunian character in chapter two of the book calls the Golden Age false, but he is hardly an unimpeachable witness.

The characters who appear briefly in the future projections taking place beyond the end of the disastrous events in the sequel, Phoenix Exultant, look back on the time covered by the novel as an age of unparalleled peace, comfort, greatness, prosperity, temperance, justice, and nobility. They certainly call it a golden age.

In designing my Arcadian commonwealth of the far future, I asked myself what was theoretically possible, given any imaginable advances in technology not violating known physics, any imaginable mechanism of social organization not violating economics. I assume one thing no other utopian writers assume: namely, that there will be less than perfect uniformity of opinion and temperament in my Arcady.

Here are my conclusions:
There would still be rich and poor, even if the poorest of the poor were absurdly well off by our standards. No advancements can eliminate differences in the abilities of men, or the differences in how men value the abilities of their fellow man (which is what causes inequality of prices and hence of incomes). If only by comparison, there will be poverty, even in Arcadia. My characters Ironjoy, Oshenkyo, and the Afloats (whom you have not met -- they appear in the sequel) are meant to represent this idea of future poverty; the Seven Peers represent wealth.

There would still be true love. Even if we redesigned our minds and bodies to serve other purposes, we would not change this, as this is what makes us human. So, while we remain human, I conclude that there cannot and will not be a total victory of Venus over her more dignified older sister Vesta. Despite the best efforts of our modern entertainment industry, selfish lust will not entirely displace selfless devotion. We humans are not nymphs and satyrs, not after 35, in any case. The human heart desires permanence; even the most fickle lover vows eternal fidelity, and, in the moment of his passion, believes his vow. Even in Arcadia, there will be marriage vows, those who honor them, and those who betray them. Phaethon's wife, Daphne, represents this idea. Both versions of Daphne.

There would be children. Even if new life is created in a lab, or in a computer matrix, it would not be competent to be independent from the first moment of existence. Someone, whoever created it, would be responsible for its well-being. This relationship, of necessity, cannot be a form of servitude or indenture, since the created being did not consent to its creation. It would be personal rather than impersonal; father and son. And, if there are sons, they will dismiss the wisdom, and rebel against the authority, of their fathers. Helion represents this idea.

There will be war and rumors of war. No matter how peaceful, no matter how secure, no matter how fine and happy all living things might be, it is still easier, in the short term, to gain by rapine and violence than by reason, until and unless there is someone who stands ready to destroy you if you violate your covenants with your fellow man. Such men are always ignored and spat upon by their inferiors until the trumpet blows, and the fires of war are seen again in the distance. The soldier, Atkins, represents this idea.

If there is a mechanism to restrain violence by means of a threat of violence, then there will be laws to govern that mechanism. Monomarchos represents this idea. And, if there are laws, there will be those to whom those laws, no matter how wise and gentle, seem rigid and oppressive. The Neptunians and cacophiles represent this idea.

There still will be dreams, great dreams, dreams of renown without peer. No matter how many tools, or how godlike the power, the super-technology of the future puts into human hands, human dreams will soar to places beyond what those powers can reach, or those tools do. Therefore, logically, there will be economic competition to prioritize how to spend those resources; there would still be things we are driven to do which we cannot do, even in Arcadia. Phaethon represents this idea.

And there will be death, even in Arcadia. Entropy will eventually triumph, no matter in what strange bodies we house ourselves, or what sturdy systems we might use to store our minds. There will be those who can face grim reality, and those who will hide in illusions. There are numerous representations of this idea throughout.

If there are happy children in some even farther future that dwell without wealth and poverty, love and war, law and chaos, birth and death, it is beyond my power to imagine.

And perhaps outside of what human readers might find amusing or instructive to read.

Even though the Golden Oecumene you describe is in crisis, it's enormously seductive: I wouldn't mind living there, in fact I'd sell close relatives into slavery for a chance to do so. It's an old dilemma in SF, but how can you tolerate lifting so commodious a utopia into being, only to condemn it by its flaws and hypocrisies?
I am afraid that if you sold a close relative into slavery to live there, those who live there would not accept you as one of them.

The short answer to your question is that Utopia is a logically self-contradictory concept. There can be societies as far advanced above us as we are above the anguish, hunger, and barbarism of primitive hunter-gatherers. Those societies will have problems, some of which we know, other of which we do not know.

Some problems are eternal. I am certain that the chieftain of the Red Elk people whose daughter was being married to a short-sighted and day-dreamy hunter of the Cave Bear people felt the same upset in his heart as my father-in-law felt when he realized he was losing his cherished daughter to an ex-lawyer who wanted to be a penniless newspaperman and write fables.

On the other hand, some problems have been left behind. I did not have to choose which of my grandparents to leave behind on the ice-flow because the seals were not running this year. I did not have to stand by and watch the only woman whom I have ever loved perish in bloody filth because my son was feet-first in the birth canal.

No real object or event can ever render full satisfaction to all users, since the satisfaction of any one desire necessarily gives rise to other additional desires. Human brains evolved to solve problems, not to dwell on past accomplishments.

So it is with Utopia. Some men will be unsatisfied with conditions we might think nigh unto paradise. A hungry man has but one worry; a well-fed man has many worries. But starving is not one of them.

The Golden Age is full of debate: eloquent, subtly nuanced philosophical and aesthetic argument, but playfully expressed. How seriously should the book's numerous polemics be taken?
I don't really understand your question. Grave people ponder jokes as if they contain profundities; light-hearted people laugh off deep questions as if they are jokes.

I fear if I have not sufficiently hidden which points of view represent my own, then this is a failure as an author. I hope that even points of view I sharply disagree with are portrayed with some sympathy in my work.

This is a stylistic trick young writers are encouraged to filch from Homer. Whom was he rooting for? The Trojans or the Achaeans?

A major theme of The Golden Age is the simultaneous depth and frailty of illusion: the Oecumene's virtual reality regime is thorough-going, and Phaethon must penetrate its Veil of Maya. Are you ultimately a brutal realist, or do you find illusion a necessary consolation?
I am a Stoic. Of things, some are within our control, and some are not. Those things within our control are our judgment of right and wrong, our will to attempt or to refrain, our consent to true and false. Those things not within our control include our bodies, our health, our fortunes, our reputation, whether we live or die.

A Stoic is only concerned with what is within his control. Everything outside of his control is a neutral and indifferent matter. For example, we can control whether we speak the truth, act with justice, think with integrity. We cannot control the slanders, injustices or prejudices of other people, so, logically, those things can mean nothing to us.

It may be impossible for an untested man to live up to this harsh philosophy. It is certainly impossible for an honest man not to try.

Does that answer the question?

The sequel (and conclusion) to The Golden Age is Phoenix Exultant, due out in 2003. Phaethon (that would-be Prometheus) has a starship by that name. Now that we've seen Earth in such detail, will Phaethon tour the galaxy next?
I am afraid that the action of this story concerns only the struggle over whether or not Phaethon's dream will come true or be stillborn. If it has a happy ending, and he takes off in his splendid ship, that is the end of the story. On the other hand, if he is shot down by Olympian powers, blasted and destroyed, with only his ex-wife to weep for him, that is also the end of the story. In neither case would the action of the story move away from the Solar System.

Certain scenes in Phoenix Exultant do take place off Earth, however: the swarm cities at the Jovian Trojan Points, at Mercury L5, and below the chromosphere of the sun.

I have some very rough notes on what might happen between the end of the events depicted in Phoenix Exultant, and the final proton decay at the far end of the death of the sidereal universe, but no present plans to write a third book against this background. Obviously, this might change, depending on how the book is received.

You have a fantasy novel on the way. What will it be called, and will it be flamboyantly erudite in the magnificent manner of The Golden Age?
It is called The Last Guardian of Everness. It is a novel of high fantasy that takes place in the modern age. The main character is named Galen Waylock; he is the last watchman living in a haunted mansion (called Everness) which has the peculiar property that anyone who falls asleep in one of the chambers of the mansion, has a dream that takes place inside the mansion.

The watchmen, long ago, were given the charge to await the coming of an immortal enemy from the lands men sometimes see in dreams, and sound the alarm. The enemy, being immortal, merely waited. But the generations passed, and the mortal men forgot to watch, and only the last and youngest watchman left still believes in magic, and in the dangers of magic.

Now Galen has dreamed an oracular dream, predicting the coming of all the forces of the great foe of gods and men. Is it a true dream or a false one? His ancient instructions tell him to sound the Silver Horn his family has kept in a museum for ages, which will wake the Sleeping Champions, and signal the onset of the last battle, during which the old Earth will be destroyed, and a new one put in her place.

Of course, this all sounded fine and good to Galen's Dark Ages ancestors. But it is the modern day, and he does not want to destroy the Earth. (For one thing, it is where he keeps all his stuff.) His idea is to sneak to where the magical weapons of the Sleeping Champions are kept, figure out how to use them, have mortal men fight the Enemy, and maybe keep the Earth intact.

This plan does not work out as planned. Meanwhile a man named Raven the son of Raven is in the hospital with his dying wife, the giddy and elf-like Wendy. Raven has a dream in which a necromancer offers to save his wife if, in return, Raven will murder a complete stranger.

The complete stranger Raven murders, unfortunately, is none other than Galen Waylock, who is the only person keeping the necromancer, and all his foul crew, from entering the waking world.

So now Raven has to hide his crime from his newly-cured wife, solve the mystery surrounding the haunted mansion, fill in for Galen, and save the Earth from the Forces of Darkness, but also save the Earth from the equally inhuman Forces of Light. Then the wife begins having dreams about the murdered boy, Galen, because, after all, his life was shed to be fed to her, and now she is haunted.

Everyone from the Archangel Uriel to the Faerie-Queen Titania to Merlin the Magician shows up in this wild epic, with guest appearances by various titans, lunar monsters, unicorns, and demigods, selkie, frost-giants, a pulp-magazine super-hero, not to mention the Most Holy Grail.

I am not in a position to say how flamboyant and erudite The Last Guardian may appear to the readers. Buy a copy when it comes out, judge for yourself.

Copyright © 2002 Nick Gevers

Nick Gevers, an editor at Cosmos Books, writes extensively on SF for a wide variety of publications. He produces two monthly columns for Locus, and his reviews and interviews have also recently appeared in The Washington Post Book World, Interzone (the March 2002 issue of which he co-edited), Locus Online, Foundation, and Infinity Plus. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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