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Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem (original 2008; edition 2009)

by Neal Stephenson

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
7,340270935 (4.17)1 / 396
Raz, a mathematician, is among a cohort of secluded scientists and philosophers who are called upon to save the world from impending catastrophe.
Authors:Neal Stephenson
Info:Harper (2009), Edition: Reprint, Mass Market Paperback, 1008 pages
Collections:Your library

Work details

Anathem by Neal Stephenson (2008)

Recently added byJRMANDRAGON, ccatalfo, j3b, ATLarsen, royragsdale, ArcanumXIII, wyclif, qadave, private library
  1. 211
    A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (Jesse_wiedinmyer, vnovak, szarka)
  2. 181
    The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (the_awesome_opossum)
    the_awesome_opossum: The plot and writing are really similar: a dense and complex mystery/thriller set in a monastery. The Name of the Rose is historical fiction, not sci fi, but if you enjoyed the complicated and weighty plot, Name of the Rose would also be good… (more)
  3. 140
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  4. 140
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  5. 80
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  6. 70
    Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco (freddlerabbit)
    freddlerabbit: See the Name of the Rose recommendation above - I find Foucault's even more analogous here because Name of the Rose is a bit more plot-driven than the other two, where Foucault's and Anathem both have as much as 40% pure theory-disguised-as-dialogue.… (more)
  7. 72
    Embassytown by China Miéville (bertilak, g33kgrrl)
    bertilak: Miéville has written a philosophical science fiction novel that rocks and is not bloated: Stephenson please take note.
  8. 50
    Excession by Iain M. Banks (elenchus)
    elenchus: Banks also introduces the "out of context" problem central to Anathem, but in a wildly different plot, and universe. Banks is less ontology and more space opera, but I found both books very entertaining, and both Stephenson and Banks sensitive to political questions raised by their respective plots.… (more)
  9. 50
    The Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand (bertilak)
  10. 30
    Nightfall by Isaac Asimov (Jesse_wiedinmyer)
  11. 30
    Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (Mind_Booster_Noori)
  12. 20
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    quartzite: Both books deal with key groups of people preparing to meet alien cultures with a bit of theology and philosophy thrown in.
  13. 53
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  14. 65
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    chmod007: Both novels depict coexisting-but-dissociated societies — drastically foreign to the world we live in — but help us reflect on it.
  15. 00
    The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson (Mind_Booster_Noori)
  16. 00
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  17. 00
    Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman (themulhern)
    themulhern: Stephenson himself remarked that Anathem was a book about how people don't read books anymore. Moreover, there is a delightfully satirical sequence in which the characters are discusses serious things over food at a rest stop, and the narrator is repeatedly distracted by images on the speelies that are incoherent yet commanding. Later, the protagonist realizes that one of these images was relevant, and there is another bit of satire.… (more)
  18. 00
    Evolution's Shore by Ian McDonald (themulhern)
    themulhern: Another book in which the aliens appear with unknown motivations. Here, though, the context is a very contemporary Earth, and so the speculation is much more about the here and now. It spawned a series of which I have not read the rest.
  19. 00
    Relativity, space time and geometrodynamics by John Archibald Wheeler (bertilak)
  20. 22
    Parallel Worlds : A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos by Michio Kaku (bertilak)

(see all 24 recommendations)


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English (269)  Finnish (1)  French (1)  German (1)  All languages (272)
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This book is the novel version of this quantum physics paper by S. Carroll (2021) ( )
  fmqa | Sep 5, 2021 |
What if monasteries were populated by scientists rather than members of religious orders? At first, that appears to be the premise of this thoroughly amazing novel, narrated by a young resident of such a monastery, and covering several eventful months. But that's not all that it's about. Over the course of 900 pages, Stephenson touches on, among other things: Plato's cave; millenium clocks; structuralism vs. formalism; ontology; epistemology; government vs. academia; the value of education; quantum mechanics; and fake news on social media (and this was published in 2008!). None of that is plot, of course, but I don't want to offer any spoilers, other than to say that the story takes place on a planet called Arbre, which is not the far-future Earth I was initially tempted to take it for.

This book isn't for everyone. In particular, I doubt it will appeal to readers looking for fast paced, easy to digest, sci-fi action. The first sections of the book mostly have the slow and measured pace one imagines make up the monastic life; pages are spent on dialogs between characters discussing some point of theoric (i.e., scientific) reasoning. Likewise, "theoric", and the "anathem" of the title, are just two of dozens - hundreds, perhaps - of new words coined for the book, along with some novel uses of existing words, particularly "math". However, the bulk of the text is ordinary English, putting it closer to [b:Brave New World|5479|Brave New World / Brave New World Revisited|Aldous Huxley|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1331315450s/5479.jpg|39947767] than to [b:Ridley Walker|776573|Riddley Walker|Russell Hoban|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1383166398s/776573.jpg|762606]. Understanding all that's being narrated is thus a bit difficult at first, but before long the new words have shown up enough times that it's easy to infer their meanings. In fact, there's a thorough glossary in the back, although I didn't notice it was there until I'd read half the book, and I didn't really miss it; in fact, it got distracting so I decided to leave it be, and just read it through at the end. The "Note to the Reader" that prefaces the text explains a bit about how the novel words were composed, too.

Speaking of end matter, there are three appendices of a sort (here called "calcas") that are worth reading when they are referenced in the text. Each one is an extended conversation about a technical topic that's been elided from the main text, and while those details aren't needed right then, the second and third ones definitely help make sense of what follows. The first calca, on the other hand, is just neat.

To sum up: wow. This may be my favorite Stephenson to date. ( )
  JohnNienart | Jul 11, 2021 |
Perhaps my favorite Stephenson book. Wonderfully creative - don't miss it! ( )
  MarcHutchison | Jul 11, 2021 |
I'm reviewing the audiobook, read by Oliver Wyman, Tavia Gilbert, William Dufris, and Neal Stephenson. Because of that, the spellings below will be incorrect - I'll be going based on what I heard.

The thing I liked most about this book was the world building. So many layers, so many things to consider. Ras was a good protagonist and I liked the arc of his story.

The audiobook was a great way to read this. The voice acting worked very well and I really enjoyed Wyman's take on all the characters' voices. The "slowing for emphasis" on certain emotional beats worked well, though may have been used once or twice too much, or to too great an effect - but that's an extremely minor quibble.

The story on whole was very good. Pacing, while slow and developing, was appropriate for the MANY big thoughts Stephenson is examining here. The characters were sympathetic and consistent, though I would have liked to see a bit more complexity from the supporting cast, particularly Cord, Yule, and Ganelli. The one big problem for me came at the end.

----- SPOILERS ------

Stephenson had such a great setup with the world building and the interplay of the "Geometers". I loved the reveal of Jules Verne Durrant, and (being that I was listening to the audiobook) didn't catch that what I was hearing as "Latear" was actually "La Terre" - the Earth. This kept me unsure for a couple of chapters until another character listed the four Geometer worlds and listed Earth among them. This was an enhancement due listening to the audiobook for me and I quite enjoyed it.

On pacing, perhaps my favorite part of the whole story were the messal discussions of the many-worlds concepts. People sitting around a table talking should not have been so enjoyable, but I LOVED the way this played out. Honestly, I was annoyed when Durrant hijacked the conversation with the copper bowl, because these scenes were so well done.

I also really liked the eventual resolution - a signed treaty. Military action followed by people actually making peace. A far more hopeful and (I think) realistic outcome for the alien-invasion story.

The thoughts on transcendence, many-worlds hypothesis, configuration spaces, and philosophy were beautifully done. I think there may have been a bit too much "straw-man" in the arguments about religion, but at least there were multiple viewpoints provided to make it not quite so preachy. All in all, this was a fun way to get introduced to some of the thoughts of rational philosophy.

Where the story failed for me was a single plot point - oxygen. Stephenson did try to "hang a lampshade" on the explanation of why it eventually happened as it did, but none of it worked for me. There were so many times when this plot point should have been talked about and planned for by the characters BEFORE making it to the ship. And all of the previous work that Stephenson had done to show that chemicals between the different cosmi wouldn't interact was complete undercut by having the oxygen bit play out.

THAT - far more than food - should have been what Durrant warned the boarding party of. They should have had so much more oxygen. Right now, it requires that everyone in the boarding party and planning groups of the anti-swarm be completely stupid. I would have been happier if it had been a plot point of worry for Ras all during the orbit transition, telling himself not to freak out about how helpless they would be once they made it onboard. That they would have to make certain the worldburner was destroyed because, at best, they would all be incapacitated once getting on the ship. Instead, it was played off as a surprise and that we (the readers) shouldn't have realized that the oxygen was going to be a problem, even though we'd already read about the spectral lines of the laser, the "unchanged" food passing through Ras' digestive track, and Durrant's explanation about food and hunger.

The fact that Stephenson plays off Durrant's own transition when arriving on Arb (so that he absolutely knew it would be a problem for the boarding party) and then NOT having a suitable plan for this irked me. It pulled me completely out of the story, and while I still finished it, I was never again invested in the story. From the moment Ras wakes up in the medical ward until the ending left me unsatisfied.

So, a really good, thought provoking story that I think missed the landing. Which was really too bad because I think it would have stayed with me more if it had had a more internally consistent ending.

That said, still worth reading to force yourself to think about things differently. ( )
  youngheart80 | Jun 15, 2021 |
5 reasons why academics should read Anathem:

1. You will feel right at home even though the story is set in an alien world (I).

The planet is called Arbre and it has a history and society are not radically different from Earth’s. Except that at some point (thousands of years before the story begins) the people of Arbre revolted against science and confined their intellectuals to monasteries where the development and use of technology is severely limited - no computers, no cell phones, no internet, no cameras, etc -, as is any contact with the outside world. Inside these monasteries (“Maths”) the intellectuals (the “avout”) dedicate themselves to the study and development of mathematics, physics, and philosophy. As the use of technology is restricted, all that research is purely theoretical.

Arbre’s Maths are therefore an allegory for Earth’s universities. How many of our papers and dissertations end up having any (non-academic) impact? Maybe 1% of them? Fewer than that? In (Earth’s) academia the metric of success is usually peer-reviewed publications, not real-world usefulness. Even what we call, say, “applied econometrics” or “applied statistics” is more often than not “applied” only in a limited, strictly academic sense; when you apply econometrics to investigate the effect of economic growth on democracy that is unlikely to have any detectable effect on economic growth or democracy.

So, in Anathem you find this bizarre alien world where intellectuals are physically confined and isolated from the rest of the world and can’t use technology and yet that world feels familiar and as a (current or former) scholar you won’t react to that in the same way other people do. If you go check the reviews on Goodreads you’ll see lots of people complaining that the Maths are unrealistic. To you, however, Maths will sound eerily natural; Anathem would be more alien to you if the Maths were, say, engineering schools.

(Needless to say, the allegory only goes so far, as Arbran’s avout are legally forbidden from having any real-world impact; having no choice in the matter, they don’t lose any sleep over the purely academic nature of their work. And of course people do produce lots of useful research at Earth’s universities.)

2. You will feel right at home even though the story is set in an alien world (II).

The way an Arbran avout progresses in his or her mathic career is entirely different from the way an Earthly scholar progresses in his or her academic career - and yet way too familiar. In Arbre you start by being collected at around age 10. That makes you a “fid” and you will be mentored and taught by the more senior avout, each of which you will respectully address as “pa” or “ma”. When you reach your early twenties you choose - and are chosen by - a specific mathic order. There are many such orders, each named after the avout who founded it - there are the Edharians, the Lorites, the Matharrites, and so on, each with specific liturgies and beliefs.

The avout are not allowed to have any contact with the outside world (the “extramuros”) except at certain regular intervals: one year (the Unarian maths), ten years (the Decenarian maths), one hundred years (the Centenarian maths), or one thousand years (the Milleniarian maths). And only for ten days (those days are called “Apert”). You can get collected by any math - Unarian, Decenarian, Centenarian, or Millenarian. If you get collected, say, at a Unarian math, and you show a lot of skill and promise, you can get upgraded (“Graduated”) to a Decenarian math. If you keep showing skill and promise you can get Graduated to a Centenarian math. And so on. The filter gets progressively stricter; only very few ever get Graduated to the Millenarian maths.

So, the reward for being isolated from the outside world and focusing intensely on your research is… getting even more isolated from the outside world so that you can focus even more intensely on your research. Sounds familiar?


3. Anathem gives you vocabulary for all things academia.

Think back to your Ph.D. years and remember the times you went out with your fellow fids for drinks (well, if you were actual fids you wouldn’t be able to leave your math - you could, but then you wouldn’t be able to go back, except during Apert - but never mind that). Weird conversations (from the point of view of those overhearing them) ensued and you got curious looks from waiters and from other customers.

Why? Because you spoke in the jargon of your field - you used non-ordinary words and you used ordinary words in non-ordinary ways. Like “instrumental” or “endogeneity” or “functional programming”. Not only that: the conversations were speculative and obeyed certain unwritten rules, like Occam’s razor. Clearly these were not the same conversations you have with non-avout - your college friends, your family, your Tinder dates. And yet you call all of them “conversations”. Well, not anymore; Anathem gives you a word for inter-avout conversation about mathic subjects: Dialog. Neal Stephenson goes as far as creating a taxonomy of Dialog types:

"Dialog, Peregrin: A Dialog in which two participants of roughly equal knowledge and intelligence develop an idea by talking to each other, typically while out walking around.
Dialog, Periklynian: A competitive Dialog in which each participant seeks to destroy the other’s position (see Plane).
Dialog, Suvinian: A Dialog in which a mentor instructs a fid, usually by asking the fid questions, as opposed to speaking discursively.
Dialog: A discourse, usually in formal style, between theors. “To be in Dialog” is to participate in such a discussion extemporaneously. The term may also apply to a written record of a historical Dialog; such documents are the cornerstone of the mathic literary tradition and are studied, re-enacted, and memorized by fids. In the classic format, a Dialog involves two principals and some number of onlookers who participate sporadically. Another common format is the Triangular, featuring a savant, an ordinary person who seeks knowledge, and an imbecile. There are countless other classifications, including the suvinian, the Periklynian, and the peregrin.
(Anathem, pp. 960-961)

(Yes, there is a glossary in Anathem.)

You can’t get much more precise than that without being summoned to a Millenarian math.

Dialog is just one example. You left academia? You went Feral.

Feral: A literate and theorically minded person who dwells in the Sæculum, cut off from contact with the mathic world. Typically an ex-avout who has renounced his or her vows or been Thrown Back, though the term is also technically applicable to autodidacts who have never been avout.
(Anathem, p. 963)

You left academia to go work for the government? You got Evoked.

Voco: A rarely celebrated aut by which the Sæcular Power Evokes (calls forth from the math) an avout whose talents are needed in the Sæcular world. Except in very unusual cases, the one Evoked never returns to the mathic world.
(Anathem, p. 976)

Reviewer #2 says your argument is not original? He’s a Lorite.

Lorite: A member of an Order founded by Saunt Lora, who believed that all of the ideas that the human mind was capable of coming up with had already been come up with. Lorites are, therefore, historians of thought who assist other avout in their work by making them aware of others who have thought similar things in the past, and thereby preventing them from re-inventing the wheel.
(Anathem, p. 967)

Got friends or family who are not academics? Well, ok, J. K. Rowling has already given us a word for that - muggles. But in some languages that word gets super offensive translations - in Brazilian Portuguese, for instance, they made it “trouxas”, which means “idiots”. Not cool, Harry Potter translators. But worry not, Neal Stephenson gives us an alternative that’s only a tiny bit offensive: “extras” (from “extramuros” - everything outside the maths).

Extra: Slightly disparaging term used by avout to refer to Sæcular people.
(Anathem, p. 963)

That cousin of yours who believes the Earth is flat? He is a sline.

Sline: An extramuros person with no special education, skills, aspirations, or hope of acquiring same, generally construed as belonging to the lowest social class.
(Anathem, p. 973)

And of course, what happens to a scholar who gets expelled from academia? He gets anathametized.

Anathem: (1) In Proto-Orth, a poetic or musical invocation of Our Mother Hylaea, used in the aut of Provener, or (2) an aut by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the mathic world.
(Anathem, pp. 956-957)

And so on and so forth. Frankly, it’s amazing that academics manage to have any Dialogs whatsoever without having read Anathem.

(I must note that Neal Stephenson not only puts these words in the book’s glossary, he uses them extensively throughout the book - there are 40 occurrences of “evoked”, 90 occurrences of “Dialog”, and 57 occurrences of “sline”, for instance. And because there is a glossary at the end he doesn’t bother to define these words in the main text, he just uses them. Which can make your life difficult if, like me, you didn’t bother to skim the book before reading it and only found out about the glossary after you had finished. Damn Kindle.)

4. Anathem might be the push you need to quit social media for good.

I’ve been reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work, about the importance of focusing hard and getting “in the zone” in order to be productive. (Well, “reading” is inaccurate. I bought the audio version and I’ve been listening to it while driving - which is not without irony.) There isn’t a whole lot of novelty there - it’s mostly common sense advice about “unplugging” for at least a couple of hours each day so you can get meaningful work done (meaningful work being work that imposes some mental strain, as opposed to replying emails or attending meetings). The thing is, at a certain point, much to my amusement and surprise, Cal Newport mentions Neal Stephenson.

As Cal Newport tells us, Neal Stephenson is a known recluse. He doesn’t answer emails and he is absent from social media. To Newport, that helps explain Stephenson’s productivity and success (No, I won’t engage you in a long Periklynian Dialog about how we can’t establish causality based on anecdotal evidence. That’s not the point and in any case Cal Newport, despite being an avout himself - he’s a computer science professor at Georgetown - is trying to reach an audience of extras and Ferals.) I had read other Neal Stephenson books before - Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, REAMDE, Seveneves -, but I had never bothered to google the man, so I had no idea how he lived. After Cal Newport’s mention, though, I think Anathem is a lot more personal than it looks. Among its many messages maybe there is Neal Stephenson telling us “see? this is what can be achieved when smart people are locked up and cut off from the world”. “What can be achieved” being, in Neal Stephenson’s case (and brilliantly recursively), a great novel about what can be achieved when smart people are locked up and cut off from access to the world.

5. Anathem may be an extreme version of what happens when people turn against science.

Flat-Earthers and anti-vaxxers are back and people who don’t know what a standard-deviation is pontificate freely and publicly about the scientific evidence of climate change. I’m not saying these slines are about to lock up Earth’s scientists in monasteries, but perhaps the Temnestrian Iconography is getting more popular.

"“[...] Fid Erasmas, what are the Iconographies and why do we concern ourselves with them?”
“Well, the extras—”
“The Sæculars,” Tamura corrected me.
“The Sæculars know that we exist. They don’t know quite what to make of us. The truth is too complicated for them to keep in their heads. Instead of the truth, they have simplified representations— caricatures— of us. Those come and go, and have done since the days of Thelenes. But if you stand back and look at them, you see certain patterns that recur again and again, like, like— attractors in a chaotic system.”
“Spare me the poetry,” said Grandsuur Tamura with a roll of the eyes. There was a lot of tittering, and I had to force myself not to glance in Tulia’s direction.
I went on, “Well, long ago those patterns were identified and written down in a systematic way by avout who make a study of extramuros. They are called Iconographies. They are important because if we know which iconography a given extra— pardon me, a given Sæcular— is carrying around in his head, we’ll have a good idea what they think of us and how they might react to us.”
Grandsuur Tamura gave no sign of whether she liked my answer or not. But she turned her eyes away from me, which was the most I could hope for. “Fid Ostabon,” she said, staring now at a twenty-one-year-old fraa with a ragged beard. “What is the Temnestrian Iconography?”
“It is the oldest,” he began. “I didn’t ask how old it was.” “It’s from an ancient comedy,” he tried.
“I didn’t ask where it was from.”
“The Temnestrian Iconography…” he rebegan.
“I know what it’s called. *What is it?*”
“It depicts us as clowns,” Fraa Ostabon said, a little brusquely. “But… clowns with a sinister aspect. It is a two-phase iconography: at the beginning, we are shown, say, prancing around with butterfly nets or looking at shapes in the clouds…”
“Talking to spiders,” someone put in. Then, when no reprimand came from Grandsuur Tamura, someone else said: “Reading books upside-down.” Another: “Putting our urine up in test tubes.”
“So at first it seems only comical,” said Fraa Ostabon, regaining the floor. “But then in the second phase, a dark side is shown— an impressionable youngster is seduced, a responsible mother lured into insanity, a political leader led into decisions that are pure folly.”
“It’s a way of blaming the degeneracy of society on us— making us the original degenerates,” said Grandsuur Tamura. “Its origins? Fid Dulien?”
“The Cloud-weaver, a satirical play by the Ethran playwright Temnestra that mocks Thelenes by name and that was used as evidence in his trial.”
“How to know if someone you meet is a subscriber to this iconography? Fid Olph?”
“Probably they will be civil as long as the conversation is limited to what they understand, but they’ll become strangely hostile if we begin speaking of abstractions…?”"

(Anathem, pp. 71-72)


This is it. Go read Anathem and tell your fellow avout and Ferals about it. See you at Apert. ( )
  marzagao | Jun 1, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 269 (next | show all)
Seen through the eyes of a young ascetic named Erasmas, the universe of “Anathem” and its properties are revealed methodically over hundreds of pages, and at first, there is much joy to be found in watching this plausible other reality assemble itself and in observing how it parallels our own.

Too much of the book is dominated by lengthy dialectical debates, whose conclusions are hardly earth-shattering (if you are reading this review, I suspect you already know how to divide a rectangular cake into eight equal servings) and which do little to promote a reader’s engagement with the characters of ­“Anathem,” any more than one cares about the interior lives of Pausanias or Eryximachus while reading “The Symposium.” What’s worse, the book’s fixation on dialogue leads Erasmas (and Stephenson) to simply tell us what is happening or has happened in pivotal scenes, instead of allowing us to see the events for ourselves through descriptive action.
added by SimoneA | editNew York Times, Dave Itzkoff (Oct 17, 2008)
The only catch to reading a novel as imposingly magnificent as this is that for the next few months, everything else seems small and obvious by comparison.
Stephenson's world-building skills, honed by the exacting work he did on his recent Baroque Cycle trilogy, are at their best here. Anathem is that rarest of things: A stately novel of ideas packed with cool tech, terrific fight scenes, aliens, and even a little ESP.
added by PhoenixTerran | editio9, Annalee Newitz (Sep 4, 2008)

» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Neal Stephensonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dufris, WilliamNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gilbert, TaviaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gräbener-Müller, JulianeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Serrano, ErvinCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stingl, NikolausÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stutz, DavidComposersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wyman, OliverNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Raz, a mathematician, is among a cohort of secluded scientists and philosophers who are called upon to save the world from impending catastrophe.

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