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FromĀ All Surrounding Parallel Realities

Q&A WITH JAMES LUCENO

Posted 11.20.12

If you want to write, it helps to live an interesting life. That statement is sound advice for all aspiring writers, whether you want to write songs, plays, short stories—or novels. Being well read helps, too; experience a great variety of stories (or songs or plays). These two bits of advice are very familiar to many writers, so before this intro becomes too much like a Writing 101 course, I’ll mention just one more piece of advice:

It helps to do both.

As with many successful writers, James Luceno indeed does both. Having spent a good amount of his life as a traveler of South America and other parts of the world, Jim learned about diverse peoples and cultures firsthand. The time he invested in those places informed his writing, whether he wrote logs about his experiences—or tales of high fantasy; Robotech fans first encountered Jim’s work when he coauthored the novelization of the animated series with Brian Daley, the two of them sharing the pseudonym Jack McKinney. By the 19th novel, The Zentraedi Rebellion, South America became the main setting for a number of the characters, and Jim flavored the story with many ingredients in his possession. The Robotech novel series already had appealed to readers due to its exploration and exciting continuation of the epic, along with thrilling action often delivered at a brisk pace reflective of the TV show, but The Zentraedi Rebellion offered a distinct feel and somewhat muted tone, coloring the saga in new ways. The book, which wasn’t based on any of the animated episodes, showed that the novel series could still delve into fresh territory, even when the series was almost finished.



And new challenges are very familiar to Jim as a writer. Although sci-fi books already had been a part of the catalog of stories in his reading experience before he started working on the Robotech novelizations in the ’80s, he was still new to writing sci-fi; his first novel, Headhunters, was inspired by his actual travels, not incredible trips across the stars. This boldness is what complements Jim’s other qualities as a storyteller, qualities traced to an erudite yet adventurous life. Thus, I must mention another piece of advice: Be bold. For boldness (and Brian’s insistence) brought Jim to writing episodes of The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers, another animated series from the same decade that gave us Robotech; “No guts, no glory,” is an appropriate refrain in the theme music of Galaxy Rangers. That undertaking led to his work on the space opera we know as Robotech. After proving he could successfully write stories in a sci-fi universe that branched into multiple mediums, Jim wrote Star Wars novels later—he became a New York Times best-selling author. Among his work are a trio of The New Jedi Order novels; Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader; and Darth Plagueis. Qualities of Jim’s Robotech books—his involving characterizations, mix of the realistic with the fantastic, vibrant locales, and more—flourished with his contributions to Star Wars. With all of these examples from his career, it could be said that boldness leads to an array of work.

The variety in Jim’s writing can be further appreciated by looking at some more of his titles. Rainchaser. His sci-fi novel A Fearful Symmetry, a Philip K. Dick award finalist. Hunt for the Mayan Looking-Glass. The Mata Hari Affair. This ever-evolving range is part and parcel of what made him a Robotech novelist for a time. So, in my effort to learn about anything else that contributed to his writing, I asked him about his influences early in my questions.

Bryant Shiu aka Mecha 8

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How did you get your start in fiction writing, and more specifically, novels? Was becoming a fiction writer something you had always wanted?

JIM: I didn’t try my hand at fiction until I was 26 or so; before then I’d devoted myself to playing bass in various rock n’ roll bands and NYC studios, and to travel. My first novel, Headhunters, published in 1980, grew out of journals I’d kept while wandering about in Asia, Africa, and South America during the mid-70s. Fittingly, it’s about young Americans on the road.

Which authors and works inspired you? What were the qualities about them that you admired?

JIM: Thanks in part to a brilliant high school friend, I was delving into serious fiction even while I was still reading DC Comics, Mad Magazine, and Classics Illustrated. I read whatever looked interesting, from Asimov and Heinlein to Burroughs and Pynchon to Ian Fleming and Elmore Leonard. There was just so much to admire in all of their works: Pynchon’s encyclopedic grasp of history and technology; Fleming’s wonderful plots; Burroughs’s prose experiments; Leonard’s way with dialogue…I stand on the shoulders of all of them.

Please tell us how you and Brian Daley got the job for the Robotech novels.

JIM: Brian and I met in 1974, when both us were working on first novels. But we didn’t work together until the mid-80s, when Brian sort of dragged me into submitting scripts for a short-lived television animated series called The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. The seven scripts I ultimately wrote represented my first foray into science fiction. When Ballantine Books secured the licensing rights to ROBOTECH, a woman named Risa Kessler, knowing that Brian and I had worked together on Galaxy Rangers, approached us about adapting the series.

In working on or discussing with Carl Macek and Brian the novelization prep work, what was it like for the original 85 episodes; The Sentinels, an animated sequel which was never completed; or elements of the never-animated The Odyssey?
     

JIM: ROBOTECH was running on TV at the time, but in the NY area the episodes were not being shown in sequence; so when I first tuned in to acquaint myself with the show I couldn’t make sense of what was going on. It wasn’t until Harmony Gold brought Brian and me to Los Angeles and gave us the scripts and videotapes of the episodes—in order—that I was able to get a handle on the various plot threads, and the amazing magic trick Carl Macek had conjured. Brian and I wore out several VCRs, running and pausing the episodes while we were writing.

How helpful was Carl during the writing process? I think your inclusion of the Dune-like epigraphs was brilliant.

JIM: Carl and Brian had a lot in common, in that they were both well versed in classic science fiction, DC and Marvel comic books, and old movies. For the first couple of days the three of us did a lot of brainstorming, tying elements of ROBOTECH to this or that novel or comic or film. From the start, Carl wanted us to expand on the animated series, to make it not only more adult but even more epic in scope. Dune figured heavily in our discussions, and when I finally started work on adapting Macross, I decided to include chapter epigraphs, as a kind of homage to Frank Herbert. Throughout the process, Carl was always available to answer questions; otherwise, he more or less gave us free rein to adapt the series as we saw fit.

Did the novelization of Robotech ever go so smoothly as to feel like a kind of telepathy with Brian? And did either of you go, “Hmm, well, that’s not what I would have done, but…”?

JIM: In successful two-author collaborations, a kind of third voice emerges, which in some cases is more than the sum of its parts. In the beginning I was still learning how to write science fiction and paid close attention to Brian’s writing, attempting to emulate it without copying it. In some instances, we traded what we had written, each tweaking what the other had done to ensure a level of conformity. Gradually, I became more confident, and began to rely more on my own style. We avoided disagreement until The End of the Circle, in which we were on our own in any case, without scripts or much in the way of input from Carl Macek. We plotted the book together, but decided in the interest of time to divide the story in half; I wrote the first half, Brian the second. The thing was, and for whatever reason, he decided to diverge from the original story we’d conceived, taking it places I didn’t think it should go, particularly with Lancer and a few other characters.

Even though Carl’s vision for an animated Sentinels and Odyssey series wasn’t realized, did you ever feel that you had to stay true to certain concepts he had been working on at the time? Was it ever difficult to diverge from some things in, for example, his Sentinels outline which can be found in Robotech Art 3, or concepts you thought that he might feel strongly about? (For one, I’m glad you didn’t use his steampunk ideas exactly the way he had wanted in Sentinels; some of them entered the books by way of Karbarrantech, and I thought there was a good balance.) I know Carl said that the outline had been a work in progress before handing the story to you.

JIM: Desperate for advertising support to continue ROBOTECH, Carl and his writing team were forced to deliver The Sentinels scripts in record time. Only a few actual scripts were completed; the rest of the story was laid out as a “treatment” in a two-inch-thick spiral-bound plot points book. Carl was the first to say that none of it was written in stone, and when all chances of production evaporated, he basically told us to do whatever we needed to do to make the story work. As I recall, we tried to remain true to the treatment in the beginning, only diverging from it when we began to discover what we considered more interesting plotlines. Odyssey was always meant to work as a kind of time loop so that the TV series could wrap and immediately begin again, but not in precisely the same way Brian chose to conclude it.



As Bill Spangler had done in The Malcontent Uprisings comic, you had pushed or explored characters past their comfort zone, such as Rick, Max, Miriya, Wolff, and the Zentraedi Bagzent whose story is found nowhere else but in The Zentraedi Rebellion novel. However, with the character Anatole Leonard, since he was so despicable, it’s hard to know what entails a comfort zone for him in the traditional sense. With good guys, I feel a lot more for them, but with Leonard, he’s always been a loud-mouthed, alien-hating idiot, if shrewd at times. Leonard was developed in new ways in The Malcontent Uprisings comic and your novels. But was generating some amount of sympathy for him ever a goal? Or was the goal to give him more dimension?

JIM: I never had any real sympathy for Leonard, but I felt it was important to humanize him and give him more dimension. Sometimes that’s easier to do with villains or evil characters than it is with heroes. Since most villains aren’t constrained by normal moral decisions—and need only to hew closely to the justifications they have devised for themselves—they have a larger arsenal of tools at their disposal, and in many cases are much more interesting characters to write.

Everyone who watches Robotech is swept up in the drama and the realism injected in this sci-fi series that features not only superb mecha designs and intense action, but also a military backdrop, war story, soap-opera love triangles, as well as humor and some zany circumstances (including a singer who brings an alien armada to its knees). Yet it all somehow came together remarkably. But you and Brian had to represent all of that in the novels while expanding on the epic. To concentrate on no more than a couple things, such as mecha battles or just the romance, as some material did was to do just that—focus on one or two aspects of Robotech. However, Jack McKinney had explored all essential qualities with the novelization. So, my long-awaited question to you is, did writing Robotech feel like the strangest juggling act ever?

JIM: ROBOTECH actually felt like the wildest sandbox in which a writer could play. It was operatic, romantic, heroic, and outrageous all at the same time. The story was huge, with dozens of point-of-view characters, and, in the end, galaxy-spanning. Often it felt as if we could bring any “style” to bear; the story permitted us to be comedic, mysterious, melodramatic, even absurd. In retrospect, though, I’m sorry that we grew satiric, parodic with some of the material—inclusions I attribute to the burnout factor; of having to write so quickly and furiously to meet publishing deadlines.

This relates to my previous question: Were there any particular challenges specific to writing an epic such as Robotech? How similar or different was it to writing for Star Wars?

JIM: Our challenge in adapting ROBOTECH was to retain the spirit of the animated series, even while attempting to enlarge it. I’ve given myself the same challenge in writing in George Lucas’s universe: to remain as faithful as possible to the flavor of the films while attempting to deepen the connections between characters and events. Had Brian and I been commissioned to “steer” the so-called STAR WARS Expanded Universe, I suspect we would have tried to strike the same balance between space opera and militarism we brought to ROBOTECH.



[Note: Sometime after this Q&A took place but before it was web-published, Disney announced its acquisition of Lucasfilm. Looks like the Star Wars Expanded Universe will enter a new era.]     

During the humans’ first battle with the Zentraedi, part of which took place in Earth’s skies, the first novel described the physical demands on RDF pilots and grunting sounds that would be heard on the tac net since the pilots were pulling g’s. Those instances are among the reasons the novels should be noted for their realism and respect of servicemen, even when they’re staying true to the source material in other ways by exploring the civilian milieu, broad humor, and parameters of the plot.

Another example: I like Scott Bernard and Lancer as much as anybody, but I want to throttle both of them each time a one-off character suddenly does something favorable toward the end of an episode in which Lancer, Scott, or somebody else basically says the wayward soldier or civilian made up for what he had done and/or died heroically, as if one instance could wash away egregious acts that took other soldiers’ or civilians’ lives. Forget the “thinking caps” thing. The fact that you and Brian addressed or rewrote parts of the dialogue—those parts in particular (and let’s face it, much of the series dialogue could have benefited from a rewrite before airing)—is worth a lot more than any addition that might not please everybody. Those seconds at the end of some Invid Invasion episodes are outrageous, to say the least (e.g., Episodes “Eulogy,” “The Secret Route,” “Hired Gun”). So I thank you and Brian for recognizing that those parts needed to be fixed.

How much of a conscious choice was it to show that level of realism, from the physical demands on pilots to military protocol to addressing questionable decisions in the Robotech script? (Some of those decisions had their origins in the three original Japanese series.) Was that something you and Brian wanted to do from the outset, or did it develop as the writing continued?

JIM: From the start, Brian was determined to incorporate a certain level of “military” realism, and I went right along with that. Brian’s experiences in Vietnam always played a role in his novels, from The Doomfarers of Coramonde to the Han Solo spin-offs to ROBOTECH and beyond, and I was no stranger to the military myself, having been raised (and moved about in my youth) by a career marine drill sergeant.

One of the things that distinguishes Robotech from other series is the collateral damage to a disturbing degree.

             
We’ve seen fighter pilots and ground/sea/space troops get killed any number of times in sci-fi TV (albeit seldom with scenes as moving as Robotech back in the day), but with good guy Captain Gloval, his actions—although for reasons clearly understood—directly cost the lives of tens of thousands between at least a couple of occasions (e.g., the Zentraedi putting his back against the wall, causing him to decide on executing an untested spacefold which ended up being a tragic misfold that forced the Macross population to live in constant danger within the SDF-1; the omnidirectional barrier incident that wiped out untold thousands on the ground). It had been the first time I’d seen that in a TV series, animated or otherwise. With these instances, did that kind of detail in the animated series make it seem you were writing novels of a saga which acknowledged certain truths about war that many fictional war stories didn’t?

JIM: This is one of the things that separates ROBOTECH from the pack: Characters die and survivors are left to grapple with grief, uncertainty, guilt, regret, and a slew of other emotions. I think that some of this is more or less hardwired into the original anime, but Carl and his crew were able to bring the collateral damage closer to the surface. More of this sort of thing has been on display since, in Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, but back in the day ROBOTECH was breaking new ground.

There’s a certain life experience imbued in the narrative. And in actuality, two life experiences. As one of many then teenagers who read the books when they were first printed, I’m thankful that those qualities were woven into the saga, and I can safely say that many of us didn’t have enough collective life experience to fill a thimble. Please tell us about relevant experiences you and Brian had previous to the assignment and the research you both had done while working on Robotech. In what ways had any of that proved useful? And by the way, how did Brian get drafted as a military “consultant” during Vietnam?

JIM: In fact, Brian enlisted, and served with a cavalry unit in Vietnam before being transferred to Berlin. As I’ve said, he drew on his experiences, as I did in having spent most of my twenties in what were then remote areas of the world. More to the point, we were both pushing 40 years old when we wrote the novels—I was married and had two kids—so there was no shortage of real-life material to use and exploit when necessary.

With Brian, you had collaborated on more than just Robotech. According to certain Robotech omnibus printings, the two of you had collaborated on a standalone book and another series, all of which combined with the Robotech series to make a total of 26 sci-fi novels. I would think collaborating with someone on a sustained basis would have its challenges as well as rewards. What do you like in particular about Brian’s writing from your collaboration and his own stories? And how does your writing or process differ from his?

JIM: When I read the early draft of Brian’s first novel, Doomfarers of Coramonde, I was astounded. Every word choice seemed perfect; the action sequences were palpable; the characters were engaging and entertaining. Brian struck me as a born storyteller, and his subsequent output not only confirmed my initial impressions but continued to astound me. My influences were more “mainstream” than Brian’s—I lacked the techno-vocabulary essential for science fiction—but we were both avid researchers and in love with words. When he sat at his typewriter, the prose seemed to go directly from his brain to the page, where I rarely begin writing until I can tell myself most of the story I want to get down. I’m much weaker at writing battle scenes than I am at exploring character motivation.

The Zentraedi Rebellion is the most layered and thought-provoking Robotech novel post-18th book. On pages 168 to 172, there’s a beautiful passage, perhaps my favorite; Bagzent undergoes a transformation that starts partway through his journeys. But the tragedy of his story, in which he struggles with the embedded Zentraedi Imperative and tries to cope with the consequences of his actions, is that he continues to kill well after his self-discovery. The humid jungles of the Robotech-dubbed Southlands are the perfect place for the Zentraedi rebels to operate from, and yet, through its lush life, it becomes the perfect place for one Zentraedi to realize the futility of the Imperative.

What is it about the Zentraedi that makes them seem more suitable for further exploration than other alien races in the saga? Do you think much of their appeal has to do with a primal aspect of the Imperative (along with the fact that they look more like us than most of the other XTs)? Although the Imperative is embedded in them, they aren’t the only ones with warlike behavior patterns. Exedore points out in Novel 19 to the effect that we humans are also “Imperatived” through our own nurturing (which would include recent or historical precedents in our experiences) and millions of years of evolution that encompasses our fight-or-flight response. [By going through the text again, though, I’m reminded that the Zentraedi (including Exedore despite my above use of “Imperatived”) think the Imperative is far different from anything that humans have experienced as a whole, as Breetai notes. On the other hand, both Breetai and Exedore think humans have “masters” of a sort, by way of our development as a race or persons of authority such as our parents.]

JIM: The appeal for me, at any rate, was that the Zentraedi were an engineered, “vat-grown” race, created not only for exploration and, ultimately, warfare, but also one deprived of the ability to access a full range of emotions. As against, say, STAR TREK Vulcans, who had trained themselves to suppress or sublimate emotions, the Zentraedi were closer to cyborgs; until, of course, contact with humanity both provided at least some of them with a sense of what they might have been and doomed them as a race. This facet, more than the Imperative, is what made them interesting as characters, coming slowly unglued by music, interpersonal contact, and love. If only every “villain” was so easily seduced and redeemed.

In my original notes about the Zentraedi—jotted down sometime while I was working on the Malcontent Uprisings—I found the following quote, lifted from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game:

"If one of us [one race or another] has to be destroyed, let’s make damn sure we’re the ones alive at the end. Our genes won’t let us decide any other way. Nature [emphasis, mine] can’t evolve a species that hasn’t a will to survive. Individuals might be bred to sacrifice themselves, but the race as a whole can never decide to cease to exist.”

At the time of writing The Zentraedi Rebellion, had you already traveled in Venezuela, Brazil, the Argentine, or other places which comprised the Southlands? If so, how helpful were your travels when you were writing that book? So much of the chain of events is based there. Although you were writing about warring aliens and one unsavory human in particular, did those scenes strike a chord with you?



From Lucasfilm

JIM: By the mid-80s when we were writing ROBOTECH, I had traveled all over South America, become involved in a wide variety of schemes and shenanigans, and had encountered many larger-than-life characters, from drug dealers to rogue scientists to nascent insurgents. Without getting specific, some of my close encounters in the Andes and other regions wormed their way into the Malcontent Uprisings.

Bill first portrayed female Zentraedi as craftier, more attuned to the fears of humans, and more ingenious than the Zentraedi males. With that characterization, you received the baton in Novel 19 and ran with it. It’s been said that if women were in charge, there would be peace throughout the globe. On the other hand, the female Zentraedi, albeit aliens, show a reversal of that idea; they’re able to organize and arm the different bands far better than the males. How much did certain previous characterizations of Zentraedi (Rico, Bron, and Konda; Miriya and Azonia; Khyron; the mindless outbursts of violence by male Zentraedi post-War) play a role in the portrayal of the females during the Malcontent Uprisings? Or was this portrayal due to thinking, “Women as more dominant in making war…haven’t seen much of that in sci-fi…”?

JIM: Whenever I thought about Zentraedi females, one word kept coming to mind: Amazons.


From Lucasfilm

According to the “Robotech Chronology” published in the novels, Dolza’s armada destroys much of the planet in 2012. Given your travels and interests past borders, did you purposely assign 2012 as the year the world “ended”? Or did it just evolve from working on the narrative?

JIM: I’ve been an amateur “Mayanist” for the past 40 years, so the year 2012 turned out to be a kind of in-joke.

The animated series, novels, comics, etc. are extensions of—and indeed, part of—storytelling traditions found throughout history. Some details in stories remain the same, some are expanded upon, and some are changed; certain versions find certain audiences. In some ways, Robotech retellings are no different from many sagas across the ages. For a current way of looking at things, Robotech is serial fiction; it consists of installments that form a grander story in which details are changed with more or less frequency than those for many other universes such as Star Wars and Star Trek. For another example, comic book universes, Marvel in particular, have made changes over time while respecting much of their original stories, and they did it all in a single medium (not including their movies and such, of course, for obvious reasons), whereas Robotech simply did it through a few mediums that in a lot of people’s minds have contributed to one saga. So, is the word “canon” misused/overused at times or what?

JIM: Canon doesn’t have the meaning it once had, say, when editors of the original STAR TREK novels were working desperately to guard the continuity of the franchise. Now when canon can simply be overturned by decisions from those who hold the licensing rights, readers and others need to decide for themselves which storylines to hold dear, or which resonate the strongest. Harmony Gold has declared Jack McKinney’s versions of The Sentinels and End of the Circle non-canon, in the interest of granting themselves the freedom to ignore what Brian and I wrote. That is their prerogative, and anyone who takes on work-for-hire needs to realize, up front, that it’s best to avoid trying to own the source material in any fashion. When George Lucas gave his okay to the creation of the Expanded Universe, he made clear that he would pick and choose from that separate domain what he considered to be canon and jettison the rest.

I fully agree that readers/viewers should decide for themselves which stories have the most resonance. As somebody who enjoys the novels and a number of the comics as well as the animated series, I know what material matters the most to me, and I have my take on how they mesh together. And that’s all there is to it. But going with the definition of canon as “official,” which basically means whatever HG approves at the moment, then I suppose people are somehow satisfied with the not-quite-serviceable The Shadow Chronicles. Actually, I couldn’t care less; “canon” means squat to me. Give me the texture, depth, and epic sweep of the novels and certain comics along with the Macek-helmed 85 and Sentinels video any day. None of the material is perfect, but to me the novels and comics saved the animated series; both rescued the series from many of its flaws while expanding on the saga through different storytelling modes.

Of the 85 episodes, which was your favorite and why? And did you have favorite characters, or characters that you related to in particular through writing about them?

JIM: I don’t have a favorite episode, per se, but I was always interested in Zor, and sorry that I never had the chance to devote an entire novel to his story.

Do you think I’ve spent too much time on my continuity and timeline pages? Or not enough?

JIM: For a full understanding of the franchise, your continuity and timeline pages are nothing less than essential. My hope is that every true fan finds his or her way to your site.

The books were bestsellers. And a good part of the world has enjoyed the novel series, enriching readers’ Robotech experience in the process; my encounters with other fans almost make it seem as if a few different translated editions existed. What would you like to say to fans?

JIM: Brian and I were thrilled by the letters we received from 10- or 12-year-old fans, written by unsure hands, and sometimes in marker or crayon. The idea that the ROBOTECH adaptations were drawing kids into reading was payment over and above the advances we received. At book signings, when people show up with worn editions of the ROBOTECH novels and describe them as kind of gateway experiences, I literally beam. More than with STAR WARS, I feel that we were all on a journey together. Nerd-hipster mentality, I know, but we were a kind of cult…

What are the works, past, present, and future, by James Luceno would readers be interested in?

JIM: For the past 12 years I’ve more or less dedicated myself to STAR WARS, and have contributed eight novels, several short stories, and a couple of “nonfiction” titles to the franchise, the most recent novel being Darth Plagueis, which recounts the story of Darth Sidious’s mentor. During those years I also managed to write an action-adventure novel set during the time of the Classic-era Maya. Hunt for the Mayan Looking-Glass is available as an e-book, through Amazon and other servers. I’m planning to make some of my early science fiction novels available, as well.

For the Kindle and Nook

When the animated series first aired and the novels were first published, the world—in many respects—seemed a less troubled place than it is right now, but like other sci-fi works the thematic relevance remains. What themes of Robotech from its many incarnations should we still pay close attention to?

JIM: I’m going to give you two quotes from the movie Casablanca, which is a story about life during wartime—World War II to be exact. The first line is delivered at the close of the film by the movie’s central character, Rick, who has since become a template for the loner who becomes a hero. The rest is lifted from the film’s principal song, which is entitled “As Time Goes By.”

“I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”

It’s still the same old story / A fight for love and glory / A case of do or die. / The world will always welcome lovers / As time goes by.

You must remember this / A kiss is still a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh / The fundamental things apply / As time goes by.

And when two lovers woo, / They still say, “I love you” / On that you can rely / No matter what the future brings / As time goes by…

More so than the other two parts, I’m a big fan of the Macross portion of the series. I’ve always thought that, between the three, Macross did it first and did it best. And while that still hasn’t changed, now I’m wondering if Macross and the other two are the spiritual offspring of CasablancaRCT 

If you would like to send Jim a note, you can email him.

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