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Literature / The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet

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"Scared means we want to live."
From the ground, we stand;
From our ships, we live;
By the stars, we hope.
Exodan proverb
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The first novel written by Becky Chambers, The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet was published in 2014. The book follows the crew of the Wayfarer, a ship employed in building "tunnels" through space to connect distant reaches of the Galactic Commons.

The book opens with the new addition of Rosemary, a somewhat sheltered human clerk, to the multi-species crew including: lizard-like pilot Sissix; Dr. Chef, who is one of the last of his race and the ship's doctor and chef; Ohan the Navigator, whose species is infected in childhood with a parasite that lets them understand time and space but slowly kills them; Lovelace the AI; the human captain Ashby; the engineers Kizzy and Jenks; and the obnoxious misanthropic algae-specialist Corbin.

As Rosemary is acclimating to her new home on the Wayfarer, Ashby accepts a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a tunnel to the Galactic Core, impenetrable until now due to control by a violent and largely incomprehensible race, who are only now reaching out to contact the GC.

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The first entry in the Wayfarers series, it has two sequels:

  • A Closed and Common Orbit, which follows the story of Pepper, a Designer Baby who escaped from slavery, and Sidra.
  • Record of a Spaceborn Few, which follows Ashby's sister Tessa and other inhabitants of the Exodus Fleet.

The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet contains examples of:

  • Accidental Unfortunate Gesture: While being attacked by alien Space Pirates, Ashby rubs his hands over his eyes. The pirates take this gesture to mean "I'd rather rub shit in my eyes than keep talking to you".
  • Actual Pacifist: Exodans, like Ashby, who embraced nonviolence when they left Earth in order to better survive.
  • Alien Arts Are Appreciated: Appearances aside, the different alien races are more similar in many ways than some human cultures. Tastes in art and food and entertainment are almost universally adjacent. Including alien punk rock. "Socks... match My Hat!"
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  • Alien Lunch: Reversed when Sissix, an Aandrisk, is disgusted that a Solan human like Rosemary has eaten mammals.
  • Aliens Speaking English:
    • Subverted — the language that everyone in the Galactic Commons speaks is called Klip (short for Kliptorigan), which A Closed and Common Orbit reveals to be another language entirely when Jane/Pepper starts learning it. It seems to be a simplified language designed for use between GC species - Sissix laments its lack of subtlety compared to her native Reskitkish (which requires speaking while inhaling, something humans at least find challenging)
    • Most people on the Exodus Fleet speak Ensk, although Klip vocabulary is increasingly present in the speech of the younger generation.
  • Androids Are People, Too: Sidra is definitely a person, but has problems with being an android. Most of her conflict revolves around trying to adapt to being a ship's AI in an android body, which from her perspective is horribly limiting and unnatural. Played straight with her friends who try help her, to her increasing dismay. Eventually she transfers her consciousness to a fixed mainframe inside a shop, using her old android body and several other remote units to give her the multiple perspectives and larger memory she's designed for.
  • The Ark: The Exodus fleet was filled with poor refugees from Earth after the collapse. They dismantled their cities to build the ships, then flew off into interplanetary space without any real idea where they were going. Fortunately for their descendants they were eventually found by an Aeluon scout.
  • Artistic License – Physics: Some of the "science" offered up in the books makes it hard to guess if Chambers thinks the ideas would actually work, or she's being a Trolling Creator.
    • The Wayfarer's drive is, somehow, powered by algae, as are most other ships. However, the "bore" which tunnels through the fabric of spacetime is powered by "ambi", harvested from near black holes and a far denser and more valuable fuel source. Kizzy mentions that the ship couldn't even hold the amount of algae you'd need to switch the bore on, let alone build a whole tunnel. Where they get the energy from to grow the algae (the job of algaeists like Corbin) is not mentioned.
    • Likewise, in A Closed and Common Orbit, Sidra's android body is recharged by its own motion. If this was a supplement to electrical charging, like regenerative brakes, it would make sense. If it's the only method, as implied by Sidra's description of how her body kit works, then it's a form of perpetual motion and impossible under the laws of thermodynamics.
    • In Spaceborn Few, the Exodus Fleet ships are likewise powered by movement of the crew inside them. Again, this is extremely unlikely to provide the required power for a massive Generation Ship.
    • Using tunnels (wormholes) to travel interstellar distances is mentioned as an alternative to "FTL", which is possible but illegal due to the time travel implications. However, as far as physics is concerned any form of effective FTL is a form of time travel, even with the care taken by tunnelling ships to ensure their wormholes connect two places in the same time period.
  • Bald of Awesome: Pepper. Like all slaves from the colonies controlled by the Enhanced Humanity movement, the only genetic modification she received was hairlessness and infertility.
  • Bizarre Alien Senses: Inverted by the Aeluon, who evolved without hearing and communicate using colours on their cheek patches. After contact with aliens who used sound to communicate, they had to invent implants which give them a sense of hearing and the ability to process and produce audible speech. As a result, there is no native Aeluon spoken language.
  • Bizarre Alien Sexes:
    • The Aeluon have four genders — female, male, shon (who switch back and forth between male and female), and those who are neither.
    • Similarly, all Grum start life as a female, transition to male, and then end life as somewhere in-between.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality:
    • Aandrisk have three families, all as important as each other: the family they're born into (egg family), the family they choose (feather family) and the family they settle down and create, by adopting other Aandrisks' children, when they're old (house family). The adults bond through casual sex, and don't consider their young to be people until they're fully-grown adults. Even then, an Aandrisk doesn't have children until they get old and start an adopted family: if they happen to lay eggs before then, they give them to a house family to raise and don't maintain strong connections with them.
    • Aeluon women, during their brief fertile periods, stay with groups of highly-trained parents, having sex with the males multiple times a day to maximise her chance of conception. If she bears a child, the parents will raise it so she can get back to her career. Aeluon fertility is low, and they don't want to miss any chance someone has to bear children. They also consider raising children to be far too important a job to leave to people who aren't specially trained.
    • The Akarak, a race of bird-like aliens, believe strongly in only taking what they need. They didn't even have a concept of taking more than that before a different species, the Harmagians, colonised their homeworld and introduced it to them. The Akarak pirates who attack the Wayfarer end up negotiating what they will and won't take despite having the entire crew at their mercy, because that's how Akarak culture works (and human Rosemary figuring this out is what defuses the whole situation).
    • The Harmagians are mostly similar to Humans, except for their species' emphasis on manners, especially when it comes to the relationship between hosts and guests. Guests who do not behave properly are considered as bad as criminals.
    • The Sianat live in Pairs, and are referred to by plural pronouns at all times. One member of the Pair is the physical Sianat creature, the other is a virus which affects the creature's brain (called the Whisperer). The virus gives them the ability to see through space-time, making them the best navigators of wormholes in the galaxy, but it slowly kills them. Sharing this navigational skill with other species (even through software) is considered heresy by the Sianat, and to actually attempt to cure the virus is murder.
    • The most notable case, however, is the Toremi, who no-one else in the galaxy can figure out. They process the entire universe in terms of patterns, and view conformity as so intrinsically good that when Toremi dispute their particular subgroup's orthodoxy, they will swiftly form a new subgroup, hostile to their former one, in which to insist upon their new orthodoxy, an approach that has left them with many factions engaged in a constant war with every other faction.
  • Bothering by the Book: Rosemary saves the crew's ass at least twice by being a superior bookkeeper and Rules Lawyer.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The cure to the Whisperer, which Corbin uses on Ohan after the failed punch.
    • Kizzy's pack of fixbots
  • Cloning Blues:
    • Corbin turns out to be one of his father, much to his surprise. Unfortunately that means he effectively has few civil rights and isn't even considered a citizen of the GC.
    • There's also Pepper, who was one clone out of thousands that were used as slaves.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Kizzy is a competent ship's tech and modder, but she has a very unique outlook on life. The author describes her as "the last person you would ever want in charge of a spaceship".
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The fate of anyone who gets targeted by gene-cutters, which essentially mutilate their target from the inside-out. Grum doctors learned pretty quickly that it was easier to Mercy Kill the victims than try to save them.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Rosemary's father, who sold gene targeting weapons to both sides of a civil war, even though he was already fabulously rich through a legitimate business.
  • Death of Personality: Of the Blank Slate variety — after the Wayfarer escapes from the sabotaged wormhole, they are forced to hard reset Lovelace because she's too far gone to save as is. Unfortunately, this also wipes out her accumulated databases, essentially resetting her to factory standards and making her a different person.
  • Designer Baby: Pepper is a member of a large group of genetically-engineered children meant to serve as slave labor.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The Toremi kill each other over disagreements — Pei mentions that a few literally tore each other apart over an argument about whether Harmagians were sentient, and representatives who don't agree with the higher-ups are known to vanish.
  • Doesn't Like Guns: Ashby, because of his Exodan background, refuses to have guns on the Wayfarer, even after the ship gets boarded by Akarak scavengers.
  • Drill Tank: IN SPACE!! The Wayfarer has a space/time bore mounted on its belly to dig wormholes.
  • Dying Race: The Grum.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Pepper, who spent almost a decade hiding in the remains of a disabled ship, painstakingly learning how to fix it to escape, with only Owl, the ship's AI, and the characters in a children's VR game for company. And she starts this ordeal when she's ten.
  • Earth That Was: Earth suffered through "The Collapse" which was apparently an environmental disaster that made the ecosystem uninhabitable by humans. Humanity evacuated in Generation Ships or settled on Mars. By the start of the story, the GC has helped restore the environment so that parts are inhabitable again, making it Earth That Used to Be Better.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Eyas in Record of a Spaceborn Few isn't hugely fond of her name, explaining that her parents picked it thinking it means 'hawk' but didn't know it specifically means a baby hawk. There's also mention of a man named Walrus; his parents were thinking of 'Wolf' but didn't get it quite right.
  • Eternal English: Averted; though obviously the books are written in modern English, this is a Translation Convention and the main 'Human' language is called Ensk, implied to be a future mutation of English nigh-incomprehensible to present-day speakers. note 
  • Exposed Extraterrestrials: Aandrisks have no nudity taboo, but wear clothes while off-world to accommodate other species. When Rosemary, Ashby, and Sissix visit Hashkath, one of the first things Sissix does is take off her pants and throw them back into the shuttle.
  • Fair Weather Friend: When Rosemary explains why she changed identities, she says that after her father was exposed, nobody wanted anything to do with her, even though she'd never been a part of his schemes at all.
  • Family of Choice: While Aandrisk family structures are already fairly complicated and, in some cases, voluntary, it doesn't detract from the revelation that Sissix chose the (otherwise non-Aandrisk) crew of the Wayfarer as her feather family.
  • Fantastic Drug: "Smash" which is vaguely analogous to marijuana, being a plant which is technically illegal and provides a mild high. Kizzy also mentions "daffy", a type of illegal hallucinogen, when she tries to describe what it's like being inside a tunnel-in-progress, as well as "sophro", a legal version which you have to take before certain exams when studying for a tunnelling license.
  • Fantastic Racism:
    • The Quelin despise clones, no thanks to a brutal interplanetary war involving cloning and eugenics, and openly refer to Corbin as an abomination. If their representative is anything to go by, they don't think too highly of humans, either.
    • Some of the Toremi hate the other GC species, mainly because they don't follow the same beliefs as the Toremi — namely that everyone must think the exact same way, with dissenters getting torn apart.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: It exists in this universe, but has been banned due to the problems of temporal disruption vastly outweighing the gains. Why wormholes and pinhole drive are able to avoid this problem isn't explained.
  • The Federation: The Galactic Commons, a galaxy-spanning union of sentient species. Humans have only recently become members.
  • Fold the Page, Fold the Space: A necessary staple in a story where the main characters' jobs are wormhole construction. Kizzy does this when explaining to Rosemary how tunnelling works. She attempts at using her breakfast as a representation of the ship and the space around it, but belatedly realizes that she "can't fold porridge". Dr Chef hands her two napkins, one for cleaning her hands and one for the scientific demonstration.
    Kizzy: (Holds up clean napkin, gripping the two opposite corners) Okay. You know the big grid-like spheres surrounding tunnel openings? [...] Those are containment cages. They keep space from ripping open any farther than we want to. You have to have one cage on each end of the tunnel. (Gestures with the corners of the napkin) So if we've got one cage at this end, and another cage at this end, we've got to construct a tunnel that effectively makes it so that this - (Stretches the corners far apart from one another) - is the same thing as this. (Brings the corners together)
    Rosemary: (Frowns) Okay, so, the cages are light-years apart. They're not in the same place. But...they behave as if they were in the same space?
    Kizzy: Pretty much. It's like a doorway connecting two rooms, only the rooms are on opposite sides of town.
    Rosemary: So the only place the distance between those two points has been changed is...within the tunnel?
    Kizzy: (Grins) Physics is a bitch, right?
  • Fumbling the Gauntlet: When Ashby is trying to negotiate with the Akarak scavengers, he wipes some sweat away from his face. Unfortunately for him, in the Harmagian language (which the Akarak language is related to), that gesture essentially means that one would rather rub shit in their eyes than talk to them. This earns him a rifle butt to the face.
  • Green-Skinned Space Babe: Pei, and the Aeluon as a whole, are mentioned as being found extremely attractive by a variety of species (excluding the Toremi). They're described as hairless, having silver scaly skin, large eyes, small mouths and being very graceful.
  • Has Two Mommies: Kizzy has two fathers whom she adores, and vice-versa.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: The Toremi. As noted, they'll immediately rip into each other (and outsiders) if the wrong button gets pushed; one Toremi even wonders what's wrong with himself when he doesn't tear out the throat of another Toremi who is deliberately antagonizing him. This trait contributes to the Galactic Commons finally pulling out of its treaty with one of the Toremi clans.
  • Heel Realization: Dr. Chef realized how badly things had gone for the Grum and their war after two things — finding out that his side had come up with the gene cutters that the enemy was using, and having to Mercy Kill his last daughter.
  • Hope Spot: Jenks and Kizzy have performed the hard reset, which will either bring back Lovey as she is or reset her back to factory standards. Ten minutes pass, Jenks starts her back up... and Lovey has been reset to Lovelace.
  • Humans Are Smelly: Sissix and Dr Chef, who both have more powerful senses of smell than humans, have a rather giggly conversation in which they agree on this; Dr Chef admits he's been secretly adding powerful anti-odour powders to the soap dispensers. (The human crew never noticed.)
  • I Will Find You: Pepper has been searching for Owl for a decade, and the last third of the book is dedicated to recovering her from a museum.
  • Immediate Sequel: Closed and Common Orbit, which begins with Lovelace and Pepper leaving the Wayfarer and travelling to Port Coriol.
  • Interspecies Romance: Ashby and Pei. Rosemary and Sissix, though what a human calls a "romance", a Aandrisk might call a "casual greeting".
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • When the Wayfarer finds itself docked to a ship sabotaged with time bombs, Corbin points out that they should undock immediately and just let it blow, since the owner's insurance would cover it.
    • The Council member who keeps pushing Ashby about whether one of his crew said something unintentionally triggering around the sharp-eared and hot-tempered Toremi, which is in fact exactly what happened, but only the Toremi know about it.
  • Killed Off for Real: After the Toremi attack, Lovey is badly damaged and the only option is a hard reset, which has a fifty-fifty chance of wiping her personality back to day one. Sadly, that's what happens.
    • In Record of a Spaceborn Few, one of the six POV characters dies in a decompression accident mid-book. The second half of the story deals with the aftermath.
  • Loophole Abuse: When Corbin is put under arrest by the Quelin for being a clone, Rosemary finds out that they can rescue him if they have someone stand in as his legal guardian while he goes through the application process for non-GC species. However, said guardian has to come from a species that doesn't ban cloning — meaning it'll have to be Sissix, who shares a mutual loathing with Corbin - their first scene is them having an argument.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Pepper, whose name comes from a discovered love of food seasonings following her escape from her homeworld.
    • Dr. Chef, who serves as both medic and cook for the Wayfarer's crew.
  • Mondegreen: Kizzy sings along to some alien punk rock without knowing the lyrics, leading to her yelling "Socks! Match - my hat!" When Jenks informs her it's actually about banging the Harmagian royal family and is banned in a large swathe of space, she says:
    "Huh. Well, if this band hates the establishment that much, then I doubt they’ll care about me making up my own words. They can’t oppress me with their ‘correct lyrics.’ Fuck the system."
  • No Biochemical Barriers: Almost always explicitly true, with an in-fiction article even dedicated to various official theories about why all known sentient species can share air and sustenance with each other. There are some species-based allergic reactions though.
  • No-Paper Future: When Ashby gets an actual letter from his love interest, some of the crew have to have the very idea of "paper" explained to them.
  • No Poverty: On the Exodus fleet, resources are distributed equally and everyone has enough food, clean air and water, and free medical treatment. Opening up to the rest of the GC has given them arti-grav technology, solar energy panels and a sun to orbit, which has increased their collective prosperity. However, their trade-based economy has been disrupted by creds and the fact that goods can now leave their closed system.
    Isabel, during a naming ceremony: "If we have food, he will eat. If we have air, he will breathe. If we have fuel, he will fly."
  • No Sense of Personal Space: The Aandrisk have this reputation, since their normal mode of showing personal affection in public would count as foreplay in many other cultures.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business:
    • Ohan is usually pretty calm and laid back, with Rosemary comparing them to a stoned college student. This makes it all the more striking when the Wayfarer stops off at a colony of Sianat Heretics (Sianat who have refused the Whisperer, or who have been cured of it), and Ohan gets pissed off, believing that the Heretics will contaminate the crew with 'lies'.
    • When Pepper shows up at the Wayfarer following the failed punch, she is genuinely surprised to learn that Kizzy is now using the fixbots that she'd earlier derided as 'boring'.
  • Police Brutality: While in Quelin custody, the enforcers respond to Corbin's protests by ramming him in the chest with their armored heads hard enough to break ribs.
  • Polyamory: Favoured by the Aandrisks. Aeluons also take an arrangement similar to this while breeding, with a female or shon-female spending the two or three periods of her fertile life living with a group of parent-trained Aeluons, and having sex with the group's males and shon-males multiple times in a day to maximise her chance of bearing a child. The professional parents will then raise the child, and the mother can return to her career. Aeluons cannot afford to lose any opportunity to bear children, as their fertility rates are very low.
  • Punny Name: Port Coriol, a play on "corporeal". Changes to a Meaningful Name in the second book, which tells the story of two artificial humans, one a clone, the other an AI, living at the port who make new lives for themselves.
  • Reduced To Rat Burgers: After the starving Exodus fleet was discovered by Aeluons, they figured out the best way to feed the refugees was by offering them Red Coast Bugs, a pest on one of their colonies. Fortunately for the Exodans, they turned out to be delicious and are now considered a delicacy and enjoyed by many species throughout the GC.
  • The Reptilians: The Aandrisk look like giant bipedal lizards with multicolored feathers on their heads. Sissix jokingly tells Rosemary that they have no proof her species isn't descended from dinosaurs. Calling them 'lizards', however, is considered racist.
  • Robosexual: Jenks's relationship with Lovelace, the Wayfarer's AI.
  • Robinsonade: Pepper's story in A Closed and Common Orbit amounts to this. Cut off from human contact for nearly a decade, living in a disabled starship in the middle of continent wide junkyard, and reduced to eating wild mutated dogs for food.
  • Science Is Bad: The belief of the more hardcore Gaiists, like the Survivalists, is that since technology is what caused the Collapse to begin with, humans should go back to the way things were before. Way, way before. Jenks' mom used to be a Survivalist, up until she gave birth to him and her fellow cultists started discussing whether they should kill him because of his dwarfism. This is not a widely held view, as the only reason anybody can live on Earth at all is thanks to advanced GC technology.
  • Secret Keeper: Tak towards Sidra after xyr inkbots causes her kit body to malfunction. Dr. Chef towards Ohan, regarding their looming death.
  • Secret Relationship: Ashby and Pei have to deal with their relationship this way, because they both know that Pei would end up in serious trouble if anyone found out. After the failed punch, Pei decides that she doesn't care who finds out anymore.
  • Secretly Dying: The Wayfarer's navigator, Ohan, has a virus called the Whisperer, which grants them the ability to easily visualise multidimensional space, but which also significantly cuts down their lifespan. When Small, Angry Planet begins, they are going through the later stages, called the Wane, which only Dr. Chef and Ashby know about. Then scavengers try to kidnap him in order to sell him, and Dr. Chef is forced to blow the 'secretly' part out of the water.
  • Shed the Family Name: Rosemary changed her last name from Harris to Harper after the fallout from her father's arrest as part of her plan to get away from it.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Show Within a Show: Pepper is a huge fan of The Big Bug Crew, a long-running interactive children's show that she credits with helping foster the tolerance between various species that makes the current civilization possible. It helps that she grew up alone with an AI and watched the single episode of Big Bug available to her literally thousands of times.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Several characters in both books smoke "redreed" and its only negative effect is that it's described as mildly irritating to some aliens.
  • Space Pirates: The Wayfarer is attacked by some unusually reasonable, but still extremely dangerous, space pirates.
  • Standard Time Units: The Galactic Commons has its own timekeeping system:
    • A standard day is slightly longer than a day in Sol system time (it's unclear which solar planet they're talking about - a Sol day could well be a Martian day, which is 40 minutes longer than an Earth day.)
    • Instead of weeks, the term tenday is used - meaning 10 standard days.
    • Instead of years, there are standards. One character mentions that 5 years is between 3 and 4 standards. If we assume they meant Earth years, a standard is then about 500 Earth days long.
  • Super Hearing: The Toremi have excellent hearing, being able to pinpoint an individual's voice in a crowd ...or Rosemary's offhand comments at the diplomatic dinner.
  • Tastes Better Than It Looks: Rosemary's reaction to the traditionally Exodan delicacy of Red Coast Bugs.
  • Taught by Television: Jane/Pepper was raised alone by an AI from age 10 to 19, and all she knows of other people comes from a small selection of interactive films the previous owners forgot to delete from the AI's memory. Not that she had a lot to work with when she started - up to the age of 10 she was raised by a group of robot "mothers" programmed to teach her and her clones to sort, clean and fix discarded technology.
  • Theme Naming: Of the mythological variety. All the ships in the Exodus Fleet are named after gods of the night or stars, from various Earth cultures. Examples include the Oxomoco (Aztec), the Asteria (Greek), and the Al-Qaum (Nabataean).
  • Title Drop: the narration describes Hedra Ka as "A small, angry planet, surrounded by the warships of people who wanted to control it."
  • The Unpronounceable: Dr. Chef's real name, due largely to his native language utilising all of his independent sets of vocal cords simultaneously.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Rosemary's overheard comments to her shipmates at the Toremi diplomatic function lead to the attack on the Wayfarer and eventually the collapse of the GC/Toremi treaty.
  • We Will Spend Credits in the Future: Money is known as creds and exists digitally, in a patch embedded underneath the wrist.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?:
    • AI's for ships are common, but despite being sentient they're considered property, not people. Much of the plot of A Closed and Common Orbit concerns two AI's, one illegally downloaded into a humanoid body, and another who raises Pepper for nine years only to be confiscated by the government because the shuttle she's housed in is condemned and nobody considers that the AI is worth anything.
    • Also clones, who aren't considered citizens of the GC, or even people by some species.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: During the inquiry with the GC, Ashby reads them the riot act for trying to pursue the alliance with the Toremi, telling them just how bad it would be to have a species that considers death a reasonable punishment for disagreement living with others who don't share that belief.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Mothers in A Closed and Common Orbit, who have no qualms about hurting their charges for stepping out of line, or killing them for daring to discover the truth about the outside world.
  • You Are Number 6: Clones like Pepper are identified by a first name and a number, with Pepper's original name being Jane 23.

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