Friday, December 24, 2010

Open Friday: Remembering Fritz Leiber

You've probably noticed that I've been giving a lot of attention to Fritz Leiber recently in this blog and there's a reason for that. Today marks the 100th anniversary of his birth and I thought it important to highlight some of Leiber's best works as a way to remind us all of the debt we owe this man. As gamers, we're all very quick to acknowledge Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, and H.P. Lovecraft as our inspirations, but how often does Leiber's name get mentioned?

Not as often as it ought in my opinion, which is all the more inexplicable when you consider the fact that there are probably no two characters in all of fantasy literature that more closely map on to the notion of the generic Dungeons & Dragons "adventurer" than Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Perpetually on the make and on the run, the Twain are far better examples of "what characters do in D&D" than almost any other alternatives. Their closest (only?) real competitor is Conan and, fond though I am of Howard's great creation, I won't hesitate to say that I'd much rather spend time with Fafhrd and the Mouser than I would with the Cimmerian.

Part of the reason for that is Leiber's writing, which is equal parts exciting, witty, and sensuous -- in short, everything that swords-and-sorcery ought to be. Leiber's stories are frequently lighthearted but they are never lightweight. Amidst all the magic and mayhem are very human characters, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser chief among them, and I think this is what sets Leiber apart from most other writers of fantasy. That's not to deny his imagination in creating the world of Nehwon, only to point out that, in my opinion, his strength lay not in creating a setting so much as in creating believable characters who thought, felt, and act like real people, even, perhaps especially, when that means they behave in stupid, immoral, and self-destructive ways.

Best of all, Leiber never seems to have lost sight of the fact that he was telling adventure stories. Leiber had no grand philosophy to elucidate, no axes to grind, except the ones Fafhrd's northern brethren might employ against their foes. There's no bombast or grandiosity in his works and it's this, more than anything, that impresses me ever more as I read and re-read them. Leiber presents a great model, both for other writers and for fantasy roleplayers, each of whom has a natural tendency to take themselves too seriously. A little less blood and thunder after the fashion of Howard and a little less self-involved sub-creation after the fashion of Tolkien might do both fantasy literature and fantasy gaming a bit of good and, in that, Leiber lights the path.

Since this is Open Friday post, albeit a longer than usual one, feel free to share your experiences with Leiber in the comments below. I'm particularly interested in others who found Fritz Leiber a welcome antidote to the excesses to which we, as gamers, are prone.

42 comments:

  1. My experiences - or at least opinions - mirror yours. Leiber is my favorite fantasy author by far, and one whose works I read long before Lovecraft or Howard. I could wax poetic about his strengths, but you've already nailed it.

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  2. "I won't hesitate to say that I'd much rather spend time with Fafhrd and the Mouser than I would with the Cimmerian."

    Often Conan's companions would wind up dead, e.g. Belit, Nestor, etc.

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  3. When I first got interested in this "D&D thing", one of my friends directed me to some books in the school library. Leiber and Moorcock were the two authors he recommended. I read everything I could find that year. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser were the protagonists in a "buddy movie" in my mind. Fabulous stuff and it all captured my imagination in ways few books ever have. A sad thing now is that you won't find their books in school libraries anymore; at least not in my neck of the woods. Very sad. You can find the Twilight books though...

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  4. Well said, James.

    I gave my son my copy of "Ill Met" and told him he would enjoy it. He's 17, isn't much of a reader, and prefers the lure of video games... I caught him reading it the other day. ;)

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  5. Jim Pacek, I'll have you know that the Oregon State University Library has both the full set of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories well as the John Carter books (and one is a first edition). The world hasn't gone down hill quite yet.

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  6. James, I've been glad to hear you reflecting so favorably on Leiber of late, as I too consider him my first and best fantasy author. The Fafhrd & Gray Mouser books were the standout fantasy books of my early years, and while I have also come to appreciate many of the other "canon" authors, it is to Leiber I return for the true heart of Swords & Sorcery.

    One aspect of Leiber's writing that stands out for me as fairly unique among the usual suspects of S&S is that his writing and his characters are damn sexy! Conan may consort with many a barely-clad wench, but they often remain passive decoration, and his interest in them perfunctory. Elric is far too sunk in his own naval gazing (and Cymoril a barely glimpsed MacGuffin), and the characters of CAS wallow in a decadent decay in which hot sweaty passion has little place.

    But the Mouser & his large friend are earthy and salacious, and the women they encounter are equally forward in their passions, and have their own agendas. Kreeshkra and Hisvet are just a compelling characters as the Duo, and they are just a few of many interesting women that the two wind up fencing with. I think this is part and parcel of the comment you make about his drawing truly human characters.

    So yeah, made quite an impression on me as teen :) And I was pleased when I returned to the stories as an adult many years later that that sexiness held to a hopefully more mature eye. Titillating, sometimes tawdry, but never cheap.

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  7. I have to admit that whilst I enjoyed the stories I never really used his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as inspiration for my fantasy games. I actually preferred the works of Gardner F Fox (another forgotten author) myself.

    That being said, I've used his The Big Time and The Change War as a big inspiration in my time travel games, and even had vignettes based on Conjure Wife in my modern magical conspiracy games.

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  8. It should come as no surprise to you how much of an influence he is on me. It was his writings, as well as Moorcock's which shaped what I thought of fantasy. As I grew older, he was one of the few "genre" writers I stuck with, because of my love of his writing.

    The City project I am working on, is going to be in many ways a love letter to him.

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  9. I love Leiber.
    I read almost everything he wrote:
    Our lady of darkness remains my favorite along with Big Time.
    But you can't love Leiber (and the Twain) enough.
    I'm surprised his superb writing is not properly recognized.
    In italy he is considered a "second-rate" master.
    Silly critics.

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  10. BTW... another great Leiber book is A spectre is haunting Texas.

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  11. I first encountered Fafhrd and the Mouser through the Marvel comics, after finding one in a Half Price Books and being drawn in by Mike Mignola's art. I couldn't find any more than that one issue anywhere, but I did run into some cheap White Wolf paperbacks of the original stories, also with Mignola art, and enjoyed them immensely.

    Later, Dark Horse collected the Marvel series and I finally read the rest of the comics; I was impressed by how faithful they were to the original texts, and Mignola did a brilliant job of bringing Lankhmar to life, in a way that -- all respect to Leiber -- couldn't be done in prose.

    I love Leiber's writing, and there's an essential humour in the text which does not come through in the comics, but when I think about how Lankhmar looks, it looks like it was drawn by Mignola.

    Merry Christmas all!

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  12. The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories feel more like D&D to me than do any other stories.

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  13. I highly recommend the audiobook versions read by Jonathan Davis. A good reader can bring life to a book. Even a book one knows well seems new when the characters gain the voices chosen by a good reader.

    I got mine from Audible.

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  14. In the seventies, when I first discovered D&D and swords and sorcery fiction, all around the same time, I naturally wanted to read as much of it as I could.

    And so... what WAS there to read? Today, fantasy has its own rack at Barnes and Noble. (hell, "teen vampire romance" has its own section at Barnes and Noble). But back then... there wasn't a heck of a lot to choose from.

    Conan? Sure; the Ace paperbacks weren't too hard to track down. Tolkien? Certainly. I had a tough time finding Lovecraft; he was not yet as popular as he would be. There were the Thomas Covenant novels (which I did not care for; a fantasy hero shouldn't spend as much time whining about things as Covenant did). And Moorcock's Elric, of course (who also spent a lot of time whining, but Moorcock pulled it off better).

    But there was also Lankhmar... which not only came across as the greatest buddy movie Fantasy had to offer, but also made it clear that it was all right not to take things too seriously.

    Elric was ALL seriousness. For all that Tolkien's Elves and Hobbits loved to sing and frolic, they sure didn't seem to do a lot of it. For all that Conan had "gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth," he didn't seem to smile or laugh a lot.

    But Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser had both humor, love... and lots and lots of laughs. We will not see Leiber's like again.

    And if Hollywood needs fresh ideas, they could do worse than to take an interest in Nehwon. Although I'd worry about them screwing it up...

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  15. You know, I have never read a Leiber story. After getting through the horrendousness that is the last act of Kingmaker, Kingbreaker by Karen Morris, maybe I should start giving Leiber a shot.

    QUESTION TO LEIBER READERS: is there any particular collection print run of Leiber's stories that you would recommend I try to pick up? If I were to get all of his stories, I would love for them to have matching bindings.

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  16. I still haven't gotten into Leiber, but this might be because of the collection I read: Fantasy Masterworks' The First Book of Lankhmar, which - as I've been led to understand - puts the tales in chronological order. I read the first three stories, "The Snow Women," "The Unholy Grail" and "Ill-Met in Lankhmar," and I was so underwhelmed I never went back. I've always meant to get around to giving him another shot.

    For all that Tolkien's Elves and Hobbits loved to sing and frolic, they sure didn't seem to do a lot of it. For all that Conan had "gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth," he didn't seem to smile or laugh a lot.

    Dude, half of The Lord of the Rings is Hobbit and Elf songs! Legolas is perpetually cheerful. Conan smiles and laughs all the time: look at "Pool of the Black One," "The People of the Black Circle," "Rogues in the House" and whatnot.

    Incidentally, that's part of the reason the Lankhmar stories I've read didn't impress me: they were TOO light and jolly, and so I didn't feel like anything happening in the stories felt real or important. There wasn't any gravitas.

    Who knows, maybe I'm just weird, or I've just read the wrong stories.

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  17. I reread the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories a few years ago, and enjoyed them enormously, expect for the last couple of stories (especially "The Mouser Goes Below"), which I thought were dreadful. Consequently, I always advise people to avoid reading The Knight and Knave of Swords. The series is much, much better overall, in my judgement, without those final (surprisingly weak) stories.

    Overall, though, Leiber's tales are great, but I still prefer Howard and Tolkien.

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  18. Taranaich wrote:

    "Incidentally, that's part of the reason the Lankhmar stories I've read didn't impress me: they were TOO light and jolly, and so I didn't feel like anything happening in the stories felt real or important. There wasn't any gravitas."

    I don't agree at all. While some of the stories may appear light and jolly, I think this is more a veneer over the seriousness. Men can make jokes even in the most serious circumstances, and I think the stories reflect that aspect of men.

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  19. As I said, maybe it's the stories I've read.

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  20. QUESTION TO LEIBER READERS: is there any particular collection print run of Leiber's stories that you would recommend I try to pick up? If I were to get all of his stories, I would love for them to have matching bindings.

    The old Ace ppb editions with the white covers, would be a good set to pick up. I have and rather like the SFBC omnibus editions, The Three of Swords and Swords Masters, which collect all six of the books in the original Ace series. Either would be easy to pick up on ebay.

    White Wolf, I think, put out a series with some sharp looking covers.

    I've yet to read The Knight & Knave of Swords and hope Akrasia is wrong.:)

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  21. Wow - happy 100th, FL, wherever you are.

    FWIW, I think that FL's worldbuilding often gets short shrift. I agree that he wasn't into "self-involved sub-creation after the fashion of Tolkien," but one always gets the sense that Nehwon is a vast, rich world of which we are only getting evocative street-level glimpses. It's all the stronger for this restraint/sketchiness. ANd frankly, i don't find his characters remotely 'realistic' - but I do find them FUN. Conan and Frodo are not particularly merry companions to the reader, but F & GM are.

    I'm intrigued, though, that you paint FL as unsung. I wonder whether this is different if one is asking gaming enthusiasts or fantasy writers. Most fantasy writers I know cite him as an influence, often before Tolkien or Howard. I know that he's been a huge influence on my own work ("Bibliography here," he said self-servingly http://www.saladinahmed.com/wordpress/bibliography/). And some of the better (and better-selling) recent fantasy novels wear his influence on their sleeves - see esp. Scott Lynch's excellent "Lies of Locke Lamora"...

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  22. I first read Leiber several years after I started playing D&D, and remember thinking "*this* is what D&D is or should be like. Those lame Dragonlance novels don't really come close."

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  23. I read Leiber as a teenager; didn't like him. This blog made me read a few pages from "Swords and Deviltry" this morning. First thing I noticed: the jaunty, jocular style. This communicates to me that the author doesn't have anything to say. So it seems frivolous and has no gravitas. As a reader it takes with wind out of my sails. Second thing I noticed: Leiber's names are often clunky and hard to pronounce ("Seelba"). I can "hear" words as I read them, and his verbiage seems awkward to say the least. There may be a reason why Leiber is forgotten, right along with the Harold Shea novels of De Camp. (I wonder if "campy" came from his name :^) Nevertheless, all of your praise made me curious, and I will try to read more Leiber and see if he grows on me.

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  24. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about great writers I never cared for--December 13 under the "Flashing Swords" title--yeah, I know you really want to look it up. But I think I've finally put my finger on what's preventing me from liking Leiber, it's that light, jaunty tone and the names he gives his characters. Thanks to the posters here for helping me realize this.

    Looking at these pictures of him, though, he seems like a likable fellow--anyone who wears bow ties can't be all bad. I kind of regret not liking his work. Nonetheless, as this particular blog entry has asked for positives I won't get into the particulars of this gentleman's stories, other than it's nice (and surprising) to know he has some ardent admirers.

    Merry Christmas everyone.

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  25. Here's but one of my Leiber memories.

    http://marclaidlaw.com/fritz-leiber/

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  26. And if Hollywood needs fresh ideas, they could do worse than to take an interest in Nehwon. Although I'd worry about them screwing it up...

    Yes: much as I'd love to see a well-done cinematic rendition of some of the Lankhmar tales, I'd rather Hollywood just ignore them entirely if they can't be bothered to treat them with respect. I mean, look at poor Robert E. Howard ...

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  27. Incidentally, that's part of the reason the Lankhmar stories I've read didn't impress me: they were TOO light and jolly, and so I didn't feel like anything happening in the stories felt real or important. There wasn't any gravitas.

    I guess it depends on what one is looking for in swords-and-sorcery fiction. Speaking for myself, I prefer something a lot less weighty than many, so Leiber's stories really fit the bill.

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  28. I'm intrigued, though, that you paint FL as unsung. I wonder whether this is different if one is asking gaming enthusiasts or fantasy writers.

    I'm thinking primarily of gamers, who, in my experience anyway, aren't all that familiar with Leiber, let alone appreciative of the debt our hobby owes to his work.

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  29. I inherited the Ace paperbacks from a neighbor, and enjoyed them. Come a two-player TFT session later, I finagled my co-player into setting up our characters with a Fahfrd and Mouser vibe ... and when I described it in those terms to our GM, she just about swallowed her glasses. It turns out she was cribbing our adventure from the Lankhmar box set ....

    Alas, we only had that one session, but the other player and I knocked the banter out of the park...

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  30. Crazy as this may sound, Lieber and Moorcock are my favorite classic sword & sorcery authors as well but are also the beginning of my disillusionment with the D&D game. Blasphemy? Madness? Lies? Bare with me...

    Try stating up the Gray Mouser. He's a thief, who fights pretty well and can use some magic. Not possible for a Human in most early editions of D&D and AD&D without quite a bit of effort. Certainly not as a starting character.

    Now let's take a look at Elric...warrior, sorceror, not an Elf but not Human...begins the game with the ability to command dragons and the wealth and title of Prince. Can your first level guy do that? Not likely.

    I'm simplifying but the point is Lieber's rich world and characters always felt shoehorned when attached to D&D and its mechanics. His creations deserved something a bit more flexible.

    Happy Birthday Fritz!

    And Happy Holidays James and everyone here. Sorry to be such a D&D hater this past year. I'll try to like it more in 2011. :)

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  31. Having just reread the first three stories, I have to disagree that there is no gravitas. In The Snow Women there is a great, desperate urgency for Fafhrd to get out from under his mother's clutches, to escape Cold Corner, and to not share the same grizzly fate of his father. Even within the eroticism there is a barbaric stocism and mirth that resonates. In the Unholy Grail the Mouser practically drives himself insane dabbling in dark magic to torture a man in revenge for the death of his mentor. And finally in Il Meant the twain's two loves are eaten alive by rats resulting in the revelry being over and a full on assault on a thieves guild. The loss is palpable in stark contrast to the previous flirtations and giddiness. Yes, there is merriment and folly, a playfulness and jocundity throughout, but I would also argue that the core of their bond is a deep, kindred pathos and seething gravitas burning beneath their play. It feels very Scandinavian to me, the contrast between the bawdy and the melancholy.

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  32. I embarrassingly have only read the Mignola comics of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. On the plus side, this post goaded me into buying the first book of the series, so I can catch up.

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  33. I have to agree with Legerdemain-G-M. I really love the first three stories, and for the same reasons. Scandinavian? I hadn't made that connection, but I can give it a nod.

    I think F&GM represent the D&D adventurer "vibe," if not fitting in too well to the mechanics. Although if you look into their backgrounds and are willing to work your way up to their "jack-of-all-trades" status, it doesn't seem that far off to me.

    I absolutely associate D&D and fantasy roleplaying with JG's City State of the Invincible Overlord. I think its resemblance to Lankhmar is hard to miss.

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  34. It's totally my fault comments aren't enabled on 'Merry Christmas', isn't it?

    Anyway: The first few paragraphs of Snow Women is seriously some of the best poetry in English and until Lieber gets read in schools before F Scott Fitzgerald he's less appreciated than he oughtta be.

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  35. I'll just repeat Geoffrey,

    The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories feel more like D&D to me than do any other stories.

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  36. From his great imagery to his witty dialogue, I can't think of another writer of fantasy who was as well-rounded as the grand sage of Nehwon was in his time. Happy Birthday!

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  37. "I've yet to read The Knight & Knave of Swords and hope Akrasia is wrong.:)"

    No fear, he, she or it is ;) It's popular to rubbish these latter stories of F&GM, but for my money they are some of the best. The tone is quite different, which I suspect trips people up, because both the Duo, and Leiber, have reached a more mature and self reflective point in their lives and careers. I have to say that I feel that the stories in K&KoS make a perfect coda to the history of the pair.

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  38. Rafial said: "No fear, he, she or it is ;) It's popular to rubbish these latter stories of F&GM, but for my money they are some of the best."

    I don't know whether it is "popular to rubbish" Leiber's final Nehwon stories or not -- I don't even know among whom it would be 'popular'. The claim doesn't make much sense to me.

    I certainly *wish* that I could praise them as much as I do the earlier stories!

    I *personally* find the final stories (and especially the final one) to be extremely weak, a real disappointment compared to the earlier stories. Apparently, so do many other readers (the perception that the final stories are weak is 'popular' because many people find them to be weak, not because rubbishing the final stories is a 'popular' thing to do).

    I'm glad that Rafial found the final stories to be enjoyable. I did not. I found them lacking in excitement, and I did not care to read in great detail about Fafhrd urinating on a ship while floating through the air, or about the Mouser's difficulties in having an orgasm. (*shrug*)

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  39. I first heard of F & the GM in Deities and Demigods when I was a young teenager, actually. I didn't know anything about their origins for a long time, not until years later when I finally came across the short stories.

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  40. I just finished rereading "Ill Met in Lankhmar" and didn't realize it was so close to Leiber's 100th birthday. I find myself returning to Lankhmar more frequently than Melnibone or Cimmeria or even Barsoom. The adventures of F & GM are certainly light at times, but like a fast riposte can suddenly become deadly serious. The storming of the Thieves' Guild in "Ill Met" is a great case in point. The image of their assault has remained vivid in my mind since first reading it more than 30 years ago, made moreso by the contrasting lack of humorous banter. Truly remarkable stuff.

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  41. Read more of Leiber. VERDICT: Really dislike him. Don't like the clunky names, and I find his descriptions ridiculous . . . White witches throwing snowballs, a girl getting knocked out by a snowball, Fafrd being described as built like a tall girl with a downy chin. And I really dislike writing that tries to titillate, and Leiber really does this. In the first ten pages of "Snow Women," Leiber tries to stir the reader sexually two times. Sorry, I don't want to be titillated by Leiber's crass imagination. I'd rather leave Leiber out of that part of my life. All writing tries to influence, and Leiber's influence is far from noble. Really, he seems like the swords and sorcery equivalent of romance novels . . . yechh. LOTR, Hobbit, Hour of the Dragon: these are Light years beyond Leiber.

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  42. Hi there,

    My name is Guy Thomas, I'm doing publications for a new science fiction convention called Fogcon http://fogcon.org/. I was wondering if you had rights to that Fritz Lieber picture posted on your blog or do you know who has rights? He is one of our Honored Guests (posthumously of course) and I'd love to use this picture in our program book. Please e-mail me at xangoexu@gmail.com if you can help me or have any questions. Thanks a lot.

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