Unseen History

The weekly podcast by Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe had a guest conversationalist last weekend. Amelia Beamer was on hand to talk about her debut novel, The Loving Dead, and join in the general flow of conversation. I now very much want to read that book, but the part of the podcast I want to highlight is on a rather different topic.

Jonathan, lover of short fiction collections that he is, was talking about the recent SF Signal Mind Meld on essential short story collections. Discussion has apparently happened (though I’m not sure where, it doesn’t seem to be in the SF Signal comment thread) about the gender balance of the selections. Mike Resnick’s picks are almost exclusively male. Mike (again allegedly, I’m going by the podcast here) defended himself by saying that he had focused on the old days when few women were writing. Other people then came back with names like Margaret St. Clair and Zenna Henderson who, coincidentally, were people from the Periodic Table of Women in SF whose names I was not familiar with.

Of course this is the way it works. As I have explained elsewhere, one of the primary reasons for gender imbalance is that women are invisible to many men. Consequently, when men come to write history, they often only write about what men have done. When we look back on a period in time through the lens of history we see a world in which only men were important, but that’s because it is only what the men did that got written about.

In science fiction criticism history is of interest primarily as a means of tracing influence. There is this idea of The Conversation, in which what each author writes is seen as being a response to what has gone before. In the podcast Jonathan speculates on the influence of these invisible early women writers on the field, and suggests the possibility of an alternate past for SF — a sort of reversal of the traditional alternate history idea in that we still got to where we are today, but we actually got there by a different route.

Is this plausible? If the male writers didn’t “see” the women writers, surely they would not have been influenced by them. Well, no, because one of the things you learn as a a feminist — indeed one of the things that tends to make you a feminist — is that men do hear what women say, they just do so subconsciously.

There is a common phenomenon in office life where a group of people will be having a meeting and the woman in the group makes an innovative suggestion. Everyone ignores her. Ten minutes later one of the men in the meeting makes exactly the same suggestion, and everyone praises him for his cleverness. If you don’t believe that this happens, ask any trans woman who has seen office dynamics from both sides of the gender divide. I assure you, it is very real.

So yes, I suspect that the likes of Margaret St. Clair and Zenna Henderson did have an influence on the early development of SF. One day perhaps some feminist scholar will trace those links. Writing history is an ongoing act of discovery.

(By the way, I’m sure that this phenomenon of selective seeing applies to many other social dynamics besides gender. I’m discussing it in a gender context here because that’s how it arise in the podcast.)

41 thoughts on “Unseen History

  1. “There is a common phenomenon in office life where a group of people will be having a meeting and the woman in the group makes an innovative suggestion. Everyone ignores her. […]”

    O gods, yes. It’s happened to me loads of times – less and less frequently now, but the last time it happened to me was last week and it was a classic – the man in question made a suggestion that was word for word what I had said not five minutes previously. I was ignored, his repitition was leapt on, discussed and considered. I smiled sweetly and said (to no-one in particular) ‘Wasn’t that what I just said?’ Could be seen as career-limiting, but at my age I’m past caring!

  2. I object to the word “defending”. I was -explaining- my choices; they need no defense.

    I have commissioned over 500 stories for my anthologies, 54% from men, 46% from women, a far higher ratio of women than belong to SFWA. As readers of Challenger #31 know, I have had 42 collaborators — 22 men and 20 women. And I deeply resent the implication that I must be some sexist pig because I chose 9 of 10 seminal collections by males from a time when just about the only female writers of any note were C. L. Moore (whom I included), Leigh Brackett (who was writing novels and novellas back then), Katherine MacLean (whom nobody else named), Margaret St. Clair (whom ditto), and Andre Norton (who was writing almost no short stories). If the survey had asked for a Politically Correct list rather than an honestly-felt one, I’d certainly have chanced some titles.

    — Mike Resnick

    1. Thanks for the clarification, Mike. As I noted in the original post, I was acting on hearsay and there unsure of exactly what people had said.

      As to accusations of sexism, I note that until recently I hadn’t heard of Margaret St. Clair and Zenna Henderson. Had I been compiling a list of great writers from that period, I might well have picked the same ones as you did. We can all be influenced by the history we are told.

      1. I remember Zenna Henderson’s rather gentle idealistic and .. agrarian ..I think that that’s what I mean .. “an everyday story of country folk”, ..who happen to be alien refugees with PSI powers who look exactly like human and are cast away in rural America ..as it would have been announced had it appeared in the 1950s as a radio serial.

        There is a collection under the NESFA Press banner ‘Ingathering ‘ that contains ‘ The Complete People Stories ‘ thats worth a look see, but I dont see that her work was anywhere near as influential as that of, say, Andre Norton who was much more productive across a much wider readership and whose books that were written for children were often read by adults. Which is not to under-value Hendersons work which was very well written albeit rather too sweet for my tastes even when I was a child.

        I hadn’t realized that there’d been a TV series based on ‘The People ‘ stories but can see how it would have potential as a mini series. Must google it to see if it was pre or post ‘Alien Nation ‘

        At a stretch you could read Henderson ‘ influence ‘ into the TV media in anything from ‘Alien Nation’ to ‘Buffy ‘ but you could do that with so many a writers work, and as for the written word goes you’d find similar themes, moods and atmospheres to hers in much of Clifford Simaks work.

        I don’t think much of the concept of “invisible influence at work ” How could you tell since, after all, it is ‘Invisible ‘?

        Come Now, to look at ME you would not be able to tell that I have been deeply – but Invisibly – Influenced by The Secret Masters Of Fruitcake who from their Hidden Valley Deep in the Remotest Mountains of the HimMaleayers have vouchsafed to me all manner of arcane secret lore …. which for a Modest Fee …

        1. “Come Now, to look at ME you would not be able to tell that I have been deeply – but Invisibly – Influenced by The Secret Masters Of Fruitcake who from their Hidden Valley Deep in the Remotest Mountains of the HimMaleayers have vouchsafed to me all manner of arcane secret lore …. which for a Modest Fee …”

          Ah, but that is precisely what I mean. Writers can have many influences which their readers may not spot or no about. They are invisible to the reader and sometimes the critic — and can be unnoticed by the writer, too: we build on what we have learned and read.

  3. It’s worth checking out allthheresponses before digging too deep into the analysis.

    While there were more responses from male pundits than female pundits – granted, a potential issue in itself – more of the works by female authors picked were suggested by the male respondents than the female respondents. Some of this simply comes down to the fact that there were more male respondents but it does make the argument that men are blind to female writers harder to prosecute.

    And there are a few examples like Jeff VanderMeer who chose collections by all female writers and a number of the female respondents who chose all or predominantly male writers, which go against the grain in this case. Not saying the phenomenon doesn’t exist, just that this isn’t a good example to cite.

    For my money I would have probably chosen collections from Asimov, Ballard, Barker, Bradbury, Chiang, King, Lanagan, Le Guin, Link, and Willis.

    1. I had no intention of citing the mind meld in general as an example of lack of gender imbalance. I simply reported the fact that I heard discussion of Mike’s contribution along those lines. Please don’t put words into my mouth.

  4. The discussion happened on my livejournal here: http://girliejones.livejournal.com/1606197.html

    And refers back to several other discussions had there and elsewhere, including my article I wrote for Hoyden About Town: ttp://hoydenabouttown.com/20100610.7608/guest-post-by-alisa-krasnostein-the-invisibility-of-women-in-science-fiction/ and discussion we had on our podcast Galactic Suburbia http://girliejones.livejournal.com/1588706.html about the other Mind Meld on anthologies.

  5. There is a variation of the sadly frequent office scenario that you cite, which is even more annoying. Jane makes an intelligent and cogent suggestion during a meeting. Bill, who is generally a good guy, recognizes it for the wonderous gem that it is and heartily endorses it. Jane is quietly pleased. The meeting concludes, with Jane’s suggestion adopted. Immediately after the meeting, Jane hears The Boss talking happily about implementing Bill’s great idea. (I”ve watched this happen in cases where The Boss is female, BTW.) No matter how much Bill politely sputters, the suggestion goes down in local history as BIll’s.

    Jonathan makes an interesting distinction in the podcast between collections that are in and of themselves supremely good and collections that might be deemed important because of their influence on later (or current) writers. He used Ted Chiang as an example of someone whose writing is wonderful but not very influential, since no one else does it quite like Chiang (for various definitions of “it”). Jonathan and Gary have been kicking around such a repurposing of the word “essential” for a couple of weeks, and I think it’s a valuable approach to revisiting SF history–as a map of rivers’ sources and tributaries, if you will, rather than a map of peaks and valleys. I am especially heartened by the presence of a name I find much overlooked in current SF histories–Kate Wilhelm.

    I might add that these conversations are, in the fullest sense of the word, academic. They generate an idea, kick it around for a while, walk along a bit, generate another idea, etc. They operate from the premise “what if we looked at the subject this way for a while . . .” rather than “let’s generate One Right Paradigm.” Despite Mr. Resnick’s supremely defensive reaction to the verse “defend,” at no time was the premise “let’s start from the idea that Mike Resnick is a sexist pig.” However, using the office scenario above, perhaps many people, including Mr. Resnick, think that Bill’s idea was great.

  6. Not so familiar with Margaret St Clair, but I read quite a few of Zenna Henderson’s tales of “The People” back in the early 1970s and even enjoyed the tv movie adapted from them.

  7. I think Zenna was a wonderful writer. I love the People stories. But they weren’t seminal to the field. Most writers assumed robots would obey Asimov’s Three Laws or something similar; Heinlein spawned dozens of competent-engineer stories; Bradbury showed you didn’t need science to be a success in science fiction, and dozens of writers read him and decided character and emotion
    -mattered-; Sheckley proved you could make a living writing humor, and suddenly we had humorists as diverse as Adams, Asprin, Friesner and Pratchett. As wonderful a writer as she was, Zenna simply didn’t influence the field like that, which is why I didn’t include her.

    Mike Resnick

  8. I suspect that there is also the issue of invisible influence at work, too, whereby a given writer may well know of their indebtedness to an earlier, female writer, but because said earlier writer was less visible, those who come across the work of the second writer miss the influence and leave it out of their discussions and debates. The best example I can think of is Mary Gentle and the New Weird, but there are others.
    It’s not always easy being collected into all female anthologies: I was in one in 2008 and there was much online fuss about the very existence of the anthology — that is was unnecessary because, y’know, umm…. or that it was patronising and so on. While those raising voices about all-male collections are shouted at as overly politically correct. We’ve still got a long way to go.
    I read both St Clair and Henderson in my teens. They are wonderful writers who deserve a much higher profile.

  9. I love St. Clair, she was a regular is the heyday of Galaxy and F&SF so I imagine she was probably an influence on *somebody* 🙂

    Her “Brightness Falls from the Air’ is the story I think of whenever the Tiptree novel is mentioned, and ‘An Egg A Month From All Over’ could probably be slipped into an modern anthology without anyone noticing.

    I could have sworn Ballantine did one of their ‘Best of’s’ for her but can find no record of it, so I guess I made that up.

    1. I’ve come across an interesting piece on Margaret St Clair here ..


      The writer undertook a very fannish Quest …

      ” Looking for Sign of the Labrys–and for more information about Margaret St. Clair–was turning into a Quest. Such Quests, at least the way I undertake them, have certain rules. One is that serendipity has to play a part in the outcome. Were I plugged into SF fandom, I probably could have found her books fairly quickly. I could have posted messages on Compuserve’s Science Fiction Forum or something similar. But I preferred to try the indirect method of just thinking about it a lot, following the Law of Attraction. You could call my search a form of pilgrimage.

      I got a little closer in Logan, Utah, in June 1996. In town for a conference at Utah State University, I looked in the Yellow Pages for “Books–Used & Rare” and walked from my motel to Logan’s sleepy downtown. In a large, tidy second-hand bookstore the fiftyish owner leaned against the counter chatting with a friend, and–how perfect!–they were rehashing the story of Mark Hoffman, the notorious Mormon document forger and bomb-maker who killed two people and injured himself in 1985. The science fiction was upstairs, and there was my first success, The Best of Margaret St. Clair, a paperback collection of her stories reprinted in 1985 by Academy Chicago. My cost: $3. ”

      And that edition of the paperback of her short stories is available from amazon.co.uk for rather more than $3 …


      1. Thanks for the link, checking it out now.

        Although I’m amused that right at the start a Lewis Padgett quote is used as an example of masculine writing.

        Padgett was the pseudonym of husband and wife team Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore (another favorite of mine, who did in fact get a Ballantine ‘Best Of’) 😀

        1. Ah, … Well . I’ve been semi= complimented on my eagle eye by no less than Mi Lady Cheryl ..which caused me to Giggle ..in an ever so masculine fashion .. but, My Spy With my Eagle Eye didn’t Spot that Padget Quote.

          Time to read the rest of the Thread .. Ah, Right, Things are getting Fraught .. must Read ever So Carefully before commenting.

          Incidentally, I’m NOT going to be a competitor in any bidding for that ..” My cost: $3. ” Big South American River item alternative to the Questioners Fannish Quest … though I am ever so inquisitive there are Limits to just how nosy I might be and I still haven’t worked out the personal consequences of the UK Budget as of this Afternoon.

  10. My only objection to this and discussions I’ve seen elsewhere is the use of “men,” as if somehow all men are exactly the same. When I hear that (or read it, rather) I just see irony.

    We’re not all the same. We have different thoughts, different interests, different faces, different brains, and so on. At best, you can say “most men” or “many men” or “a good portion of men” or “just enough men to be statistically relevant,” but to say “men” implies that there are no exceptions. That’s not likely what people mean when they say it, but I can’t guess what they mean by the words they write on the Internet.

    Otherwise, I have no issues. I just learned the names of two female writers I didn’t know about, and that coming from someone who focuses pretty heavily on the academic end.

    1. Yes indeed. That’s why I was careful to use words like “many” and “often” in my original post. Nevertheless, here you are complaining that I didn’t. But perhaps it is only some men who leap to attack women without bothering to read what they say, hmm?

      1. Because you didn’t. Your words:

        “Well, no, because one of the things you learn as a a feminist — indeed one of the things that tends to make you a feminist — is that men do hear what women say, they just do so subconsciously.”

        That’s not “many men” or “most men.” That’s “men.”

        And I wasn’t attacking originally. I was pointing out a simple flaw in the use of a term. It doesn’t apply only in this situation or only to women (or some women, or a handful, or whatever). It applies to some men as well, who lump us all together like we came off an assembly line (and if you read any of those men’s magazines, you’ll see many, if not most, of themale writers who write for them often doing just that; they also typically lump women together, which is just as ridiculous).

        1. So you managed to find one place in the post where I had got careless and you are using that to suggest that the entire post tars all men. Very clever of you. And entirely typical of sexist males.

          Look, I am perfectly prepared to admit that there are many men who are reasonable people. I did my best to admit so above. But this “argument” of yours is just another example of using specific contrary examples to try to disprove a general case. You aren’t in the slightest bit interested in the case of reasonable males, you are just nit-picking to try to throw doubt on what I am saying. It does you no credit.

          1. Thank you for putting words in my mouth. That’s not what I was doing and not what I said. I was pointing out something that was rhetorically suspect and admitted that I had no other issues with what was said. You’re assuming that pointing that out I’m somehow saying your post is no longer relevant. That’s not the case. You’re making a mountain out of an anthill. It doesn’t have to be anything more than one person pointing out one flaw. Being confrontational about a minor criticism, when I have no other problem with anything being said, nor do I disagree with the general point of the post, is kind of a waste of time and energy.

            Thank you for the ad hominem as well.

          2. Perhaps SMD only pointed out one spot in order to be polite, because I can find a few more and I’d guess you’d be able to do the same if you looked at your own post objectively.

            But good on you for implying that a reasonable male is sexist. Perhaps that’s why many older feminists rail about their power slipping away. “They” tend to be very quick to judge younger males, in all likelihood men raised by staunch feminists, who are actually quite dedicated to gender equality.

  11. I’ve read St. Clair, and we have her for our Weird antho. She’s a very interesting and funny writer but you could go back and forth as to whether she should be part of canon. And I haven’t seen hardly anyone who had read her when people posted those periodic table lists. I certainly wouldn’t think Mike Resnick should have to have her on his list for that period. I am glad the discussion is turning the spotlight on her, though,

  12. But re the unseen history generally–there are several anthos out there, including Jessica Amanda Salmonson edited Mrs Darrington (sic–dont have it in front of me) and books like The Virago Book of Ghost Stories. Some really marvelous work–these on the weird/horror side of course, so not technically SF. But one thing about this unseen history–if you want to be completist it pays to look outside of genre imprints, as there’s good stuff that was published in the mainstream. Also looking at really interesting writers like Marghanita Laski who was publishing in the 1950s. One nice start would be if everyone who posted about the periodic table took one writer they haven’t read, read the books, and blog about it.

    1. Hummm .. I’m Old enough to be able to remember the various Anthologies that were fixed upon the Year 2000 … ever so far away from the turn of the Century as it was then in the 1950/60s.

      Way back then it was a Handy .. pre Web and Electronic Media ..CUE to hint – in an ever so Heavy Handed Fashion – that This Book was to do with Science Fiction but that you could Read it Without Shame since it was SPECULATIVE Fiction.

      Recently it was drawn to my attention that American ..US of A vian American … Politicians wear lapel badges in the Hope that people of Voting Qualification in the Us of A WILL vote for them ..after they noted the ever so subtle HINT that they were of the correct Political Fraternity.

      Once upon a Time there were similar Hints that You Might Read This SF/Fantasy Stuff without damaging your Middle Class/ Literary Credentials.

      Anyway, thats the Way that I would read it .. given that its now, Here and NOW, and now I don’t need to sneak from the tiny junior section of the public library into the Adult Only Area.

  13. SMD:

    I conceded your point when I first replied to you. Nevertheless you persisted in trying to pretend that I am tarring all men with the same brush. And, because I have pointed this out to you, you are now playing the victim politics card. This is bordering on trolling.

    I am perfectly prepared to be reasonable with people who have a reasonable point to make. You don’t. You are just whining.

    1. Cheryl,
      All I said was:
      –I have no problem with what is said except that you and others have used the term “men,” which likely is not intended to mean all, but rhetorically means that.

      You’ve denied it by saying you were careful not to use it (you did). I pointed it out to you and then you resorted to referring to me as a sexist and putting words in my mouth. Now you’re saying you conceded my point, which would only be true if you didn’t use the term “men” and admitted as much (you didn’t at first). Not to mention that all that is belied by your confrontational nature through all of this (again, calling me names, saying I’m saying one thing, when I’m saying another, and so on).

      The whole conversation simply could have ended with: “whoops, that was not what was intended, but I’m glad you found some new women authors.”

      The argument and the ad hominems are completely ridiculous. And if pointing out one flaw, while having no problem with anything else being said (and admitting as much) is considered trolling, then the Internet is screwed.

      Anyway. I’m going to bow out now. Nowhere to go from here but in circles.

      1. You really are a piece of work, aren’t you? I conceded your point. I noted that I had made an effort to avoid being guilty of the very thing you accused me of, and yet here you are still trying to claim that because I was not 100% perfect then I must be 100% wrong. To continue arguing a point when the person you are arguing with has conceded that you are right is tolling, pure and simple.

        Also I didn’t call you a sexist, I said that your behavior was typical of sexist males. There’s a difference. But you simply used this as an excuse to whine about being insulted. I think it is just as well for you to bow out, because the more you say the less respect I have for you and the more I become convinced that you are just finding any excuse you can to attack a woman who has made a feminist argument.

    1. Thanks. I’m not sure I’d class what he did as mansplaining. He wasn’t trying to suggest I was stupid, he was trying to insist that I held a position that I tried hard to make clear I didn’t hold. It did very quickly become all about him, though, so the link definitely applies.

      Mainly, however, I get very tired of people who bang on and on about exceptions to things that are much more generally true as if this somehow disproves the general case. I don’t suppose I should be surprised — the media does this with monotonous regularity — but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

    1. That’s a little bit rude.

      I’m just a third wave feminist, not a classical feminist. I agree that there is gender disparity, but I hardly think SMD’s sensitivity about being lumped into the traditional “male” model (even if it was rhetorical on your part) warrants implying that he’s a sexist. You both come off as reactionary, but I’ve read the posts about 6 times now and you.. well.. just sound mean.

      SMD is a friend, but he’d be the first to tell you I rarely agree with him on anything (usually he’s an idiot, but I totally see why he’s a bit miffed that you’ve become increasingly dismissive of his point).

      I think you’ve just proven that men are invisible to many women.

      1. And your original comment wasn’t rude? Round here you get what you ask for.

        But as you maintain that you are a real person playing the sock puppet rather than an actual sock puppet let’s continue the conversation.

        SMD’s original point was that conversations about sexism should not generalize on the assumption that all men are sexist. I agreed with that, and noted that I’d tried to word my post to take account of that; something that SMD either hadn’t seen or had chosen to ignore when he made his original complaint.

        SMD then chose to ignore my agreeing with him and instead complain that my post wasn’t perfectly worded. Well it wasn’t, I’m perfectly happy to admit that. But that fact that it wasn’t perfectly worded doesn’t in any way prove that I made no attempt, or prove that I don’t agree with his original point. I continue to maintain that not all men are sexist, and that it is wrong to couch the debate in terms that suggest they are. And yet here you are claiming that I am “dismissive” of that point.

        Repeatedly attacking someone for an opinion that they don’t hold, and which they have repeatedly said that they don’t hold, is not reasonable debate, it is deliberate harassment, and I won’t tolerate it.

        There could be all sorts of reasons for you doing that. Stupidity and deliberate malice are certainly possible. But I’ve been around the Internet for a long time and something I have seen far too much of is people trying to derail debates about discrimination issues by using argument by anecdote and victim politics. These attacks are generally structured something like this:

        “I object to you talking about X-ism. X-ism is no longer relevant because of [anecdote]. I am non-X and I am not an X-ist. Your continuing to talk about X-ism is oppressing me.”

        First of all, personal experience, whether it be yours, mine, SMD’s or whoever, should never be used to try to disprove a general case. That’s sloppy. And secondly, if anyone comes here and tries to tell me that I can’t talk about feminist issues because some man may be offended by my doing so, well I’m going to be totally dismissive of that.

        This would all be very annoying were it not for the fact that accusing me of being some sort of 70s throwback, man-hating feminist harridan along the lines of Janice Raymond, Germaine Greer or Julie Bindel (why yes, I did choose those names carefully) is so utterly risible that it is probably giving my readers a lot of entertainment. Next time you decide to take up your campaign against the evils of feminism, try to pick on someone who actually holds the views you dislike, not someone who would be unwelcome at WisCon.

  14. Here’s what I think happened – SMD took issue with getting lumped (and not just in this discussion, but many/most of the discussions around this current topic), you made an attempt to concede and just sounded insulting. SMD reacted negatively and chose to point out the flaw in your concession and in your post. You decided you were right and he was wrong and have spent comment after comment sticking to your guns. I have absolute respect for stubbornness, I have less respect for non-gracious “concessions”. SMD can’t very well ignore an apology that never actually occurred.

    You may have made an attempt, as you pointed out, to not generalize – but you did generalize.

    I accuse you only of things that seem apparent from your reaction to what was a fairly simple, “That hurt my feelings.” You overreacted and have belabored the point that you believe anyone who says “That hurts my feelings” is obviously just doing so because they’re trying to derail your argument, whether or not they’re making a valid point. As SMD said he agreed with you and merely requested a clarification/self-edit, I really just fail to see why you reacted so negatively. By all means, get angry that I called you a throw-back feminist, but you are sounding just a smidgen man-hatey.

    Now if you don’t mind, I have a meeting of “Stupid, Malicious Sock Puppets Anonymous” to attend.

  15. SMD said he agreed with you and merely requested a clarification/self-edit

    I have repeatedly said that I accept his point and that my initial post was poorly worded. He, and you, continue to refuse to accept this.

    you are sounding just a smidgen man-hatey

    So you are now admitting that you are a man?

    I have a meeting of “Stupid, Malicious Sock Puppets Anonymous” to attend.

    Enjoy, I’m sure you’ll fit right in.

  16. If it makes you feel any better, I could pretend to be a man (it might fit better into your world view).

    1. Still clinging to that lie, are you? Talk about being stubborn. The only evidence that you have that I hate men is that I refuse to be bullied into apologizing for hating men when I have been saying all along that I don’t hate them. So more trolling, then.

      Given that you steadfastly refuse to believe anything that I say about myself, and steadfastly refuse to take note of anything in my original post that doesn’t fit your argument, I think I am wasting my time with you.

  17. …and somewhere a litul bit of the internetz just died….

    for the record, I as one of them guy/male guys–I even love American football gosh darn it!–never even for a moment felt offended by or threatened by Cheryl’s post. Those who have strike me as remarkably thin-skinned.

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