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Astounding Days: A Science Fictional…
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Astounding Days: A Science Fictional Autobiography (A Bantam spectra book) (1989)

by Arthur C. Clarke

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My reaction upon reading this in 1990.

A very entertaining, chatty memoir of a portion of Clarke’s sf career. Reading this book is like hearing Clarke on his tv shows Mysterious World and World of Strange Powers. Clarke warmly recalls his early life, his introduction to sf (particularly Astounding, the central subject and touchstone of this book), and his days promoting rocketry with the British Interplanetary Society. Until I read this book, I didn’t realize how involved Clarke was in real science, not only with the BIS but early radar and (I always took it to be an exagerrated, somewhat apocryphal story) the development of communication satellites. Clarke knew an amazing number of famous people -- scientists, actors, newsmen, writers, directors -- many before they became famous. ( )
1 vote RandyStafford | Aug 23, 2012 |
Arthur C. Clarke

Astounding Days:
A Science Fictional Autobiography

Gollancz, Paperback, 1990.

8vo. 224 pp.

First published, 1989.
First Gollancz paperback, 1990.

Contents

I. Bates
1. First Contact
2. ''Phantoms of Reality''
3. The Hard Stuff
4. ''Brigands of the Moon''
5. Interlude in the Real World
6. ''Cold Light''
7. ''Out of the Dreadful Depths''
8. ''The Power and the Glory''
9. ''The Fifth Dimension Catapult''
10. ''The World Behind the Moon'' or ''After you, Monsieur Lagrange...''
11. ''Beyond the Vanishing Point''
12. The Fall of the House of Clayton

II. Tremaine
13. Death and Transfiguration
14. ''Born of the Sun''
15. Prelude to Star Wars
16. ''Twilight''
17. ''Lo!''
18. Nova Weinbaum
19. Greater Glories, Nastier Nightmares
20. Mechanical Boy
21. ''At the Perihelion''
22. TELSTAR Minus Twenty-six - and Counting....

III. Campbell
23. JWC
24. Rocket Warfare
25. ''Who Goes There?''
26. The BIS
27. ''Requiem''
28. '''The End of the Rocket Society''
29. Wernher
30. ''Vault of the Beast''
31. ''Farewell to the Master''
32. Atomic Power
33. Venus Equilateral
34. ''The Weapon Shop''
35. The Third Law
36. A Very Peaceful War
37. The First Spaceship
38. The End of the Golden Age

IV. Epilogue... Analog
39. Metamorphosis
40. ''The Steam-Powered Word-Processor''
41. Father of Frankenstein
42. ''siseneG''

Appendix
Listing of Clarke stories, articles, letters: 1938-87

==============================================

Some time ago, flipping absent-mindedly through it, I was ready to declare this book my least favourite one by Arthur Clarke. After all, I thought at the time, this is obviously a book for sci-fi buffs; if they are passionate collectors of old sci-fi magazines, so much the better. Whatever I am, I am certainly no sci-fi buff. A Clarke buff, yes, but Arthur, far from being the rule, is the sole exception. Never in my life have I seen a sci-fi magazine, and in all probability I never will. Even the great names in the field - Asimov, Heinlein - are to me just that: names. So I thought that even Arthur couldn't make entertaining a book largely dedicated to browsing through old sci-fi magazines and discussing forgotten stories by obscure authors.

How wrong I was! Here is yet another piece of evidence that every book is innocent until one gives it one's full attention and can afterwards make a good case that it's no good. Quite contrary to my naive expectations, Astounding Days turned out to be - no other word will do - an astounding book, a genuinely unputdownable one. I was totally bowled over by it. What follows is a lame attempt for explanation of my immense fascination using those monstrously vague and ambiguous creatures called ''words''.

I may start with the accurate yet misleading title. Its first part refers to what is reportedly the most famous and influential sci-fi magazine of all time, first published in January 1930 yet still in print more than 80 years and some thousand issues later. It has had many names through the years, but the best-known are Astounding Stories, Astounding Science-Fiction and, currently, Analog Science Fact & Fiction. The period between the 1930s and the 1950s, roughly speaking, is generally known as ''Golden Age of Science Fiction''. Why this should be so I have no idea, but it is with this period that Arthur is exclusively concerned in his book. The neat separation, at least for the first three parts, is by the almighty editors of the magazine, the last one of whom - the nearly mythical John Campbell - run it for 34 years and 409 issues. Arthur has dedicated the book to these fellows thus:

Gratefully and affectionately dedicated to the
memories of
Harry Bates
F. Orlin Tremaine
John W. Campbell


The subtitle is a great deal less prone to explanation. One misleading association it may lead to is that Arthur is concerned with his own writings and how they appeared on the pages of the magazine. This is certainly not the case. Though his fiction did appear in a number of sci-fi magazines, only seven short stories (three of which are far from his finest), five essays and some ten or so letters to the editor were ever printed in Astounding-whatever-the-rest-of-the-title (these are all listed in the appendix, most of the letters in full, together with comments by the editor and the author). There are, of course, many other works by Arthur that are mentioned on these pages, sometimes in some detail, but all this is by the way; his own oeuvre is not among the main objectives of the book. This is just as well. Great writers are notoriously reluctant to talk about their works (cf Somerset Maugham) and they do have a fine point. What could they say that they haven't already in the works themselves?

Like every truly great book, Astounding Days functions on multiple levels. Perhaps the basic one is Arthur's generous tribute to pulp magazines and intrepid editors who are supposed to have made science fiction a respectable genre. No better place to express this tribute than the most legendary of all sci-fi magazines, especially since the author followed it closely since the very beginning. Arthur's gratitude for many hours of delight and inspiration extends to a number of authors and illustrators. Among the former are names which I haven't even heard - Ray Cummings, Stanley Weinbaum, Nat Schachner, John Campbell himself - but which, I suspect, are quite familiar to sci-fi buffs. I, for one, am willing to read ''A Martian Odyssey'' simply because it is the only short story Arthur Clarke has ever read twice in a row without a break. For similar reasons I started searching the Web for reproductions of the covers of Astounding Stories from the 1930s. Today they seem to me monstrously garish and tasteless, but in those bygone times they apparently conveyed the sense of wonder in a very powerful manner. Many of them are described with admiration that, if put out of its historical context, would be difficult to understand. I don't know how much of that sentimental value extends to the stories, but since many of them are online I intend to find out. At any rate, it is no small tribute to the power of Arthur's writing that he can glue me to pages filled with titles, plots and heroes I have never heard of, much less read about.

Another major thread, every bit as important as the previous one, is popular science. In all cases stories and plots are discussed for specific reason. Occasionally their sentimental value for Arthur is enough, but much more often it is their scientific content that provokes a string of compelling reflections. The range of subjects is quite bewildering: from giant marine invertebrates (squids, octopuses) to ''hidden'' worlds behind the Moon, from paranormal forces to military obsessions, from rocket history to nuclear holocaust, from the Fourth dimension to the expanding of the Universe, from everything you can think of to anything you can't.

To be sure, Arthur makes no bones when his colleagues wrote some stupefying pseudoscience (e.g. impossible rocket braking without atmosphere?!) or when they unabashedly ventured into the realms of fantasy (e.g. miniaturization of humans for microscopic adventures). But nor does he shy away from praising some extraordinary achievements. Who would expect to find in a pulp magazine from the 1930s a serious discussion on the history and significance of Christianity and Islam? In terms of science some stuff in these magazines was indeed astounding. As early as 1930 - more than twenty years before the idea was ''officially discovered'', let alone become commonplace in science fiction - Ray Cummings used in a short story of his the concept for the so-called ''gravity assist'', namely gaining additional speed by using the gravitational field of a celestial body (also known informally as "slingshot"). As Arthur aptly points out, the idea is ''not at all obvious, and at first sight seems to violate conservation principles.'' In later years it was rather popular among sci-fi writers - Arthur himself made a spectacular use of it in 2001: A Space Odyssey - and in the 1970s NASA of course used it for ''The Grand Tour'' of the Solar System, which was pure science without any traces of fiction.

This is the place to mention my only mild criticism of this book (in addition to its pretty rambling structure; the chronological order is very rough indeed). In a nutshell, sometimes Arthur is a trifle too harsh with his colleagues. Since his tongue is always firmly in his cheek, it is impossible to be angry with him. Yet he does on occasion overdo it. Perhaps the most lamentable example comes from his treatment of Moby Dick, no less. Arthur quotes part of the chapter called ''Squid'' and remarks that ''furlongs in length'' presents a problem as no squid or octopus could be that long (1 furlong = 600 feet). Immediately afterwards Arthur lapses into spectacular naivety by supposing that Melville meant ''fathoms'' (1 fathom = 6 feet). This is very thin. Fathom is a unit for measuring mostly of depth, seldom of length, although this is beside the point. Almost certainly Melville deliberately exaggerated the length of the squid with dramatic, or even poetic, purpose. Scientifically it may be grossly inaccurate, but it doesn't in the least matter. Fortunately, however, such mishaps on Arthur's side are very rare. Generally he understands only too well that even writing ''hard sci-fi'' does require exaggeration, and even fantasy, for making it readable at all.

Somewhat ironically, the only fault of the book is closely linked with one of its chief merits: it is such a stupendous fun to read. This is probably Arthur's most flippant book, as full of witty descriptions and good-natured barbs as no other of his works. Almost every second paragraph choked me with laughter. But I am well aware that if one is not fan of Arthur's writing, one may well find the style annoying and even exasperating. Personally I find it perfectly delightful to read that some story was of ''transcendental silliness'' or that one Warner Van Lorne was a strong candidate for the Worst Science Fiction Writer of All Time against a ''pretty stiff competition''. I find equally hilarious Arthur's reaching "the ripe age of nineteen" or the character of a villain having the "singularly unimpressive" line "I really mean it!". Other uses of imaginative vocabulary include a place where all currently unnecessary but nonetheless important papers go - "the Clarkives" - and a tremendous description of Astounding in six words: "quintessence of pulpdom, pure and simple." Unfortunately many of these lines, when taken out of the context, give a very faint idea of the charm and vividness of the narrative as a whole. Trying to improve on this, here is one short paragraph about Arthur's little brother, Michael, who was still running the old family farm in the late 1980s together with his wife Joyce:

Mike's innovations are not always successful; his Manure-Spreading Hovercraft never got off the ground and is now an ignominiously rusting pile of junk. But the second-hand church organ he assembled piece by piece in a large back room of the house - bending the longest pipe to avoid going through the roof - works magnificently. Joyce is a first-class musician, between milking cows, and many a poacher has been scared off the Clarke estate by the legend of the Mad Monk and his midnight recitals.

Together with such light-hearted fluff, there are some pretty perceptive remarks about the genre. Some favourites in this category include the admission that science fiction may well present the reader with absurd science, but it has no right to bother him with false one (Arthur's own emphasis in both cases). I also wonder how much truth is contained in his half-joke that sci-fi was the best in those times of the "Golden Era" because it didn't take itself too seriously. It may seem obvious to some people to link the fascination of those early pulps with the one many find in primitive art, but it seems to me a shrewd point to make. After all, there must be more than historical significance here. Leaving aside collectors, many of the old issues of Astounding Stories are available in modern reprints and some even on the Project Gutenberg. I certainly will follow some of Arthur's strongest reading recommendations, that is stories with which he could still be impressed even in the late 1980s.

And to make the whole picture complete, it must be noted that there are many poignant, even heart-rending episodes. Some that moved me deeply were the destinies of Stanley Weinbaum, the greatest ''might have been'' in the history of science fiction, who died of cancer at the age of 33 (!), and of Harry Bates, the editor-founder, who died nearly destitute; he was seen ''standing blankly on a street corner, wearing the Salvation Army cast-offs, while passers-by tried not to notice him.'' Today the first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science (January 1930) in mint condition is a collectors' item sold for well over 1000 USD; at the time it cost 20 cents. Also unforgettable are the last words of Arthur's affectionate homage to the almost legendary rocket genius Wernher von Braun who made great careers both in Nazi Germany and post-war America, but who also had a great sense of humour and some pretty dark thoughts inside his head. By the time Astounding Days was first published, "Wernher" had long since been dead. But he probably would have been glad to read these words:

...I do not believe I am doing a disservice to the memory of a good friend, if I close this chapter with words which, for the sake of Truth and History, I believe he would have wished to have on record:

"No - I never knew what was happening in the concentration camps. But I suspected it, and in my position I could have found out. I didn't, and I despise myself for it."


While we are on such personal note, let me tell you that just another way to read this book is, of course, Arthur Clarke himself. As with all great writers, his writing style is deeply personal, rather self-consciously so, and his opinions about anything and anybody tell you a lot about the author, too. There is a good deal of pure autobiography scattered on these pages, especially considering Arthur's childhood, war experience as a radar officer and involvement with the BIS (British Interplanetary Society). Sometime in the early 1950s the autobiographical trend is severed because around that time Arthur became professional writer. From then on his books, fiction and non-fiction, are the best autobiography a creative mind may leave behind.

As always, he is not ashamed of quoting himself at length: much of "The BIS" comes from his delightful essay "Memoirs of an Armchair Astronaut (Retired)" whose first appearance in book form was in Voices from the Sky (1965). It's a vastly amusing account how the young Arthur and his equally enthusiastic mates in the 1930s were trying to utilize the staggering pre-war budget of BIS (altogether not more than a thousand dollars), having no idea that in Peenemünde Wernher von Braun was spending millions designing the great-grandfather of the spaceship. But my favourite passage is the one about Arthur's work as a civil servant, his "official" occupation before the war. It boggles the imagination to picture one of the most famous sci-fi writers working as an "auditor", playing with shillings and pennies for the Board of Education:

On the whole, I have nothing but happy memories of the pre-war Exchequer and Audit Department, though there were moments of acute boredom outside the office. As part of my training, I had to take courses in Accounting at that hotbed of revolution (though I never noticed any signs of it) the London School of Economics. The niceties of double-entry book-keeping, trial balances and bank reconciliation statements passed straight through my brain without any transmission loss; I was too busy day-dreaming about spaceships.

Other autobiographical details are much more illuminating about Arthur's personality and outlook. That he was very much interested in space exploration and global communications is a world-wide known secret, although this book does help one to appreciate that both of these passions were much more deeply rooted in his mind; both started in his childhood, when space travel was fantasy, or at best science fiction, and when the radio was a state-of-the-art technological wonder; a lot we take for granted today - TV, mobile phones, calculators, cameras, computers - not only didn't exist then, but very few people thought them possible to exist.

One trait of Arthur's character he is seldom given credit for is his violent pacifism, if you excuse this near-oxymoron. There are at least two places in Astounding Days where his views on the subject are more forcefully expressed than usually before or since. One is his address (via videotape) to the MIT Club of Washington in 1985, which caused "a good deal of cringing and collar fingering" among an audience which "had substantial representation from the notorious Military-Industrial Complex". The other is a short essay called "On Weaponry", written for the mid-December, 1987, issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. A composite quotation from both pieces would illustrate Arthur's opinion much better than I possibly could:

I would like to refer to my short story, "Superiority", which in the 50s was required reading in MIT engineering courses. I hope it still is, because it describes the inevitable fate of all those who become intoxicated with technological obscenities.

[...]

If we are to survive, we must exorcize the demons of our haunted childhood, and grow out of our fascination with "technoporn" - gleaming weaponry and beautiful explosions. Whatever new armaments may be needed to preserve peace in the immediate future, in the long run only political solutions can save us. (If we deserve to be saved: perhaps a species that has accumulated four tons of explosive per capita has already demonstrated its biological unfitness beyond any further question.

[...]

In the long run - no, the very short run - we have to become intelligent mammals, not turn ourselves back into armoured dinosaurs. To complete that quotation from Auden: "We must love each other or die." And it's very hard to love people who - for excellent reasons - we don't like.

But the alternative is far worse.


[Incidentally, "We must love each other or die", which I didn't know came from Auden, is the final line of Arthur's short story "Love that Universe"; not one of his best attempts, perhaps, but oddly moving and rather mature interpretation of the old hippy-cult. From "On Weaponry":]

The subject of war disgusts me, and I am deeply suspicious of anyone who appears to be fascinated by it. But men I greatly admire have done so...

[One such man was H. G. Wells. However, "The Great War" - what an oxymoron! - changed his attitude completely, from admiration to repulsion. After noting that Arthur continues:]

I appear - quite unconsciously - to have followed in Wells's footsteps (not for the first time...). In 1946, my Royal Air Force Quaterly essay "The Rocket and the Future of Warfare" explored all the possibilities opened up by the advent of the V2 and the atomic bomb. It ended with the paragraph:

One returns to the conclusion that the only defence against the weapons of the future is to prevent them from ever being used. In other words, the problem is political and not military at all.
A country's armed forces can no longer defend it: the most they can promise is the destruction of the attacker.

[And here is one short excerpt from the main narrative of the book as a conclusion:]

Nevertheless, I hate guns, and think there is something wrong with people who don't share that emotion. But it is necessary to draw distinction between those who need guns (soldiers, policemen, game wardens, farmers protecting their crops) and those who want them. To the latter I dedicate a phrase I concocted many years ago: "Guns are the crutches of the impotent."

However, it is very bad manners to make fun of those who need crutches, and fortunately there is now a vastly superior alternative to guns. Video war-games are much more fun; and nothing like so hard on the environment.


I have never much liked "Superiority". Despite its compelling central concept - that technological superiority may fail to bring you victory against moral superiority, or even ordinary courage - the execution is rather lame and scientifically just a tad too fanciful; but the twist in the end is one of Arthur's most effective.

But about weapons and war I couldn't agree more with him, even though I do think he underestimates the pernicious influence of video games. In my boisterous youth I myself had a kind of morbid fascination with all kinds of weapons, from knives and guns to ballistic missiles and atomic submarines. But one has to grow up at last, and discard the crutches. Perhaps "technoporn" - a lovely expression - is the real thing that should be kept away from children; and that certainly includes gory video games. I never cease to marvel, once with disgust but nowadays rather with amusement, at those people, usually adolescents in mind if not in age, who worship war in the von Moltke fashion, as a kind of noble and spiritually rich endeavour. Perhaps it is just another disturbance characteristic for the adolescence. Perhaps the same is true for mankind. Whatever the truth may be, if any, I am reminded of one unforgettable line from the rather chilling movie The Crimson Tide which sums up magnificently our present predicament: "In my humble opinion, in the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself."

By the way, there is one important bibliographical detail as regards "On Weaponry". Arthur casually mentions that it was written as a commentary to the essay "War" by T. A. Heppenheimer which appeared in a massive quarto volume titled Arthur C. Clarke's July 20, 2019 (1987). However, "Higher Power decided otherwise", and the essay never appeared in this book. Arthur continues with the significant remark that this "was not the only time when my editorial role in this book was negated, and as I was never sent the final proofs it contains some stupid captioning errors." I have recently read this book and I must say that "captioning errors" is the least of its numerous problems. The most important point is that here we have a first-hand evidence of what one indeed strongly suspects while reading: the book, except for its Introduction and Epilogue, was not written by Arthur Clarke at all. This easily explains the shockingly subpar quality of most of its contents, full of dreadful anonymity and dry listing of now obsolete scientific facts. Unfortunately I cannot agree with Arthur that it is a "handsome volume and well worth getting." It is neither.

Yet another insight into Arthur's ever-fascinating mind is the much more debatable issue of paranormal phenomena. In some of his early fiction, most notably the novels Childhood's End (1953) and The City and the Stars (1956) and the short story "Second Dawn" (1951), he made a fine dramatic use of such elusive forces, speculating on a vast scale about their existence and extent. By the late 1980s all this had changed a great deal, from "tentative acceptance" to "disillusioned scepticism". Arthur's argument, however, is open to debate. In a nutshell, he is convinced that if there was anything real about such powers, it would already have been proven beyond doubt, after which he makes the rash assertion that "scientific controversies seldom take more than a decade to settle, one way or the other." Well, it took more than one century to even start to understand the mechanisms of evolution, and it would take at least one more to complete our understanding in this respect.

I am by no means fan of the psychic stuff, for the amount of junk in it is almost equal to that in the field of UFOlogy, but it may well be that we are too young, or too old, to perceive and understand such powers. After all, the fact that we have no natural senses for detecting radio waves or radioactivity does not disprove their existence. It's also a fact that we have invented instruments suitable for that purpose only in the last century or so. The future usually being more fantastic than the wildest fantasy and the universe, in Haldane's words, being "stranger than we can imagine", both among Arthur's favourite maxims, it may be that we are still too ignorant as regards parapsychology.

Like all great books Arthur Clarke's Astounding Days completely defies things like categorization and reviewing. The author himself calls it several times a "memoir" and I daresay this is as good a description as any. My only serious complaint is that it is much too short. But for its length it is definitely quite disproportionately rich in information, speculation and insight into numerous issues. Only a few of these have I outlined, and very superficially so. (By the way, a note for future publishers: a small index with the most important names and titles would be extremely helpful.) To be sure, to enjoy this book you must be either an incorrigible sci-fi buff or a passionate admirer of Arthur, preferably the latter. But if you do feel this special kind of spiritual kinship between your mind and his, a phenomenon unfortunately impossible to put into words but none the less real for that, and you haven't read Astounding Days, then hasten to "rectify that deplorable oversight" (to use Arthur's own, deliberately and deliciously formal, phrase, although he used it for his acquiring his first issue of Astounding Stories).

By the late 1980s Arthur was already in his early 70s, a kind of living legend, and he could afford to write anything he liked without fear of not being published immediately. I am exceedingly happy that he wrote Astounding Days. It is the only book that I have ever finished and then started reading again, very much like Arthur did with Stanley Weinbaum's short story "A Martian Odyssey". In this process it was inevitable that - another hallmark of the truly great books - there would be a trace of sadness after seeing the back cover. This was significantly relieved by an excerpt from a charming review quoted there. It is written by a person slightly better qualified for the task than myself, and I am glad to finish my rambling with it:

Arthur C. Clarke is the quintessential man of science fiction. Every aspect of his life has revolved around it. It is no surprise, then, that now he has written his autobiography, he concerns himself primarily with science fiction. The title, Astounding Days, harks back to that phenomenal magazine of the Thirties and Forties, Astounding Stories... Clarke moves from science fiction to his own career as a writer and thinker, explaining how he was influenced by the ideas he read in both science fiction and science. In his social thinking he is humane, liberal and gently sceptical, in fact entirely admirable in his outlook on the world. For those (like myself) who shared Clarke's time and outlook, the book is an unexampled exercise in almost heavenly nostalgia. For anyone else, it is fascinating, since Clarke is incapable of being otherwise.
Isaac Asimov,
Observer

P. S. One bibliographical detail I forgot to mention. The pieces "siseneG" (1984) and "The Steam-Powered Word Processor" (1984) were some of Arthur's last contributions to the magazine. Both are something like short stories and that's why both are reprinted in his Collected Stories (2000). The former first appeared in the 1987 Signet edition of the collection The Wind from the Sun (1972), while for the latter this was first publication in book form; later it was reprinted in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds (1999) as well. Both pieces are bizarre specimens of Arthur's late years, when he had virtually stopped writing short stories. "The Steam-Powered Word Processor" is characterised as a "non-fact article" and should not, as some crackpots may, be taken seriously. It tells the story of the Revered Cabbage who tried, during the Victorian era, to construct a very distant cross-breed of computer and typewriter in order to improve his sermons. It's an amusing piece, obviously at the expense of John Babbage for many of the historical references bring his "analytical engine" in mind, but it is hardly among Arthur's best stories. Nor is "siseneG" whose only merit seems to be that it is the shortest one he ever wrote: mere five lines. Perhaps I am missing the point. Judge for yourself. Here is the "story" in full. I imagine it would appeal greatly to feminists:

And God said: "Lines Aleph Zero to Aleph One - Delete."
And the universe ceased to exist.
Then She pondered for several aeons, and sighed.
"Cancel Programme GENESIS," She ordered.
It never had existed.


(If you find any versions with "He", you know that they contain a terrible misprint. You have the author's own authority on that.) ( )
3 vote Waldstein | Feb 21, 2012 |
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Gratefully and affectionately dedicate to the memories of

Harry Bates
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Sometime towards the end of 1930, in my thirteenth year, I acquired my first science fiction magazine - and my life was irrevocably changed.
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