Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle – The Mote in God’s Eye (1974) Review

The mote in god's eye

  • Genre: Science fiction
  • My rating: 8.5/10

The Mote in God’s Eye is a bit rough around the edges, especially when reading it in the 21st century. It features stock characters that seem picked right out of 1960s Star Trek. There is the young captain making bold decisions whose name could have been Kirk. He commands a space navy vessel that also holds a sexualized female guest, a greedy Arab merchant and even a Scottish engineer. The USA and the Soviet Union inconceivably merged and started exploring space, and there are still hardnosed Russian generals but now they are in spaaaace!

This is the year 3000 as if humanity had never moved beyond the 20th century in sentiments and many basic technologies. The novel may be a classic in the field, but the field has long moved on in many ways.

If we put all that to the side as artifacts of an earlier time, then the story that comes forward is quite exciting. This is a classic first-contact novel about meeting an alien civilization for the first time. There is the spine-tingling moment of seeing an alien vessel emerge from the dark void of space. There is the deep sense of mystery and tension and of course the alien autopsy. Niven and Pournelle put many technical details into their interplanetary navigation and alien biology to give the story a slightly realistic edge, even though this future aristocratic human empire sounds totally unrealistic as a future for our society.

The story picks up considerably after about 120 pages, when captain Kirk (I mean, Rod Blaine) and a Russian general go on a mission of first contact to the God’s Eye nebula and we have our first interactions with the aliens. The plot moves satisfyingly fast, almost to the point that significant scenes don’t happen but are mentioned in conversations as have already happened. For instance, at one point the aliens start talking in regular English, but we’ve only had casual mentions that they were picking up words. The first half is a bit clunky like that. The novel was heavily edited before publication and much might have been cut, because for the 70s, this was a very long SF book. 560+ pages is still almost twice as long as many SF novels from that period and it does feel a little long towards the end. But, compared to today’s 1000+ page bloated fantasy novels, The Mote runs along with great enthusiasm.

It’s the central mystery of the Motie aliens that propels the story forwards. That is what keeps me flipping pages, that and the interesting interactions between humans and them. There is no real main character to hang on to otherwise. The cast is hardly more than a set of names in a space navy environment, and what character development there is, is muffled under short and simplified descriptions. I wasn’t really bothered by this, because the story is very full of events and I kept wanting to know what would happen next in this voyage of discovery. The aliens are one of the most elaborately described in any SF novel ever.

I love the Motie aliens, because they are complex as a society but also in the emotions that they evoke in us. Just like with us humans, it is hard to narrow down what a society or a whole species embodies. The humans in the novel also don’t know what to think of them. It is interesting though that Niven and Pournelle chose to create a human society in space that turned very conservative with a militaristic empire, aristocratic upper class, strict gender roles and a strong presence of religion. I didn’t find this society very believable, but their interactions with the Moties are more strained and confrontational than would happen with a more enlightened humanity.

The Mote in God’s Eye might be flawed and rather dated, but it is still a very engrossing, full story. The characters often must make difficult decisions and have nothing to go on except their assumptions and values. Its greatest achievement is the Mote aliens, because of their ambiguity. Even though their civilization is thoroughly fleshed out, they remain alien to us. Sometimes they seem to think like humans, other times they are unnerving. The Mote is a milestone in the genre and remains a good read with an impressively good story.

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It (2017) Review

It1

7.5/10

When the remake of It was announced, it took me by surprise. Why It? Why now? But looking back at how this movie was given shape, and at certain trends in recent movies and series, it starts to make sense. Western film and TV has been edging towards an 80s nostalgia for a while now, with series like Stranger Things and films like It Follows (2016), which all evoke that Spielberg vision of kids in suburbia getting involved in paranormal mysteries.

Happily, It does not feel like the ten-thousandth iteration of that trend. It feels fresh and grounded. What helps the movie succeed is in fact that the story is spread out over two films, just like the mini-series from 1990. This way, the film has enough time to give every kid in the group a solid backstory and to present the town Derry as a very believable piece of Americana. It makes sure that everyone is settled in nice and tight. This modern remake of It is therefore a period piece that tries to capture a time gone by, while the original It and films like E.T. were just shot as contemporary films, and so the remake has to indulge in some extra world-building.

What worried me the most was whether any new Pennywise the Clown could measure up to Tim Curry’s portrayal in 1990. Tim Curry is a creepy guy and he went all in. Curry laughed his creepy laugh, growled his challenges and made his body move in slightly unnatural ways. Most of all, Curry’s Pennywise got under the skin of the kids with his mockery. He acted clownish, toying with his victims. So now we have the young actor Bill Skarsgård playing the clown. He is no Tim Curry, but then again, he is not asked to be Tim Curry. This new Pennywise doesn’t talk as much, but often just stands. He doesn’t have so many antics, and it made the film a bit emptier. In fact, he is closer to generic horror monster No 45, who makes doors squeak and shakes his head disturbingly.

It2

I’m sorry to say that this new Pennywise is victim to many of the chewed-out tropes that have maligned the horror genre in the past two decades. The film relies a bit too much on screeching noises, shaky edits and CGI wackiness. The clown runs back and forth in blurred panicky moments with quick cutaways. As such, it is still very much a product of these times in which horror films are created on an assembly line. It does have a strong directorial touch and feels measured and controlled, but its unique character could have been even stronger if it didn’t rely on such techniques.

It, the story, has a deeper metaphorical message, but I am not so sure whether the writers and director truly understood it beyond the fact that the demon creature preys on people’s deepest fears. Yes, he is the boogeyman. But he is more than that; he is the embodiment of unaddressed childhood trauma that worms its way into people’s adult personalities and is then in turn passed on to the next generation of children. That is why the main characters are all kids and for many of them, the true terror is found in their home families. Their parents are the cause of deeper fears, and facing those fears is the key to beating Pennywise at his own game. Anyone who says that the home problems of the kids is unnecessary clutter didn’t get the point, but the movie is actually not very clear about it.

Overall, the movie works well. There are many chilling scenes, interesting locations and some good acting for children. These kids are a likeable bunch. The clown is not as memorable as he was before and the film does suffer from some tired techniques, but overall it is a very entertaining film and I am looking forward to the second half.

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Brandon Sanderson – Words of Radiance (2014) Review

Words of Radiance

  • Genre: epic fantasy
  • Series: The Stormlight Archive 2
  • Pages: 1303

Starting Words of Radiance feels like returning to old friends. We have spent so much time – and so many pages – watching Kaladin, Shallan and Dalinar fighting their respective battles that we know how they think and what motivates them. The ending of The Way of Kings gave all three a new start; new prospects to look forward to. But things are always harder than they appear, and Words of Radiance opens with our heroes sliding into their new roles.

So far, Dalinar’s story is the most interesting to me. His decisions have the greatest consequences, not only for others but for the entire world. His conflicts also carry the most depth, and his relationships with his son, with his opponents and his new romance make his storyline the most complex and memorable. Kaladin and Shallan in contrast carry their stories purely on their own characters, which are a bit one-note. It will be interesting though to see where they will end up. Shallan’s story is closest to the deeper mysteries behind the world of Roshar, and hopefully her role will increase in importance.

Some authors approach writing as if they are painting a canvas (like Mervyn Peake), and others, like Brandon Sanderson, write like an architect. Sanderson clearly designed an elaborate plot like a project, full of work packages and milestones to reach, and then walks us through it while going from point to point in a slow procession. Shallan has a series of adventures that teach her magic and confidence, and in time all the plotlines duly intersect. In this sense, her development echoes that of Kaladin’s in The Way of Kings, complete with flashbacks to her childhood.

This is a story about young superheroes. It dawned on me that Sanderson is recreating the X-Men in a fantasy setting. With Dalinar being professor X, Shallan being Jean Grey and Kaladin… well, I might be pushing the comparison too far, but it still holds. They are chosen and given magical powers and now they must learn their powers and unite. Our heroes are all young adults with emotional hang-ups from their childhood, which gives them extra passion and talents because of their coping mechanisms.

Also like Kaladin’s story, Shallan keeps repeating the same kind of conflict. She ends up in situations where she needs to step out of her safe space and enter a confrontation, and step by step she grows and learns to control her magic powers. This actually happens quite rapidly compared to how timid she seemed in The Way of Kings. Her development didn’t seem entirely real, because I’d expected that she would be done with lying and become a scholar, but she’s turning into a con artist. Her character never felt to me like a realistic, living creation. Sanderson forces his characters towards end goals, and this makes the story feel even more like a design. It is easy enough to care about his characters and to feel invested in their stories, but the novel occasionally feels like a puppet show.

About Shallan. Her sharp tongue, which makes her insufferable, seemed a strange addition that didn’t really fit with the rest of her personality and her past efforts to make people happy. On top of that, her motivations and excitement for diving into certain dangerous adventures also felt off, considering the girl she was in the previous book and the scholar she was trying to become. Moreover, she puts all her other plans and even her life in danger in a quest that is poorly motivated at best. So, in short, I just don’t really understand her character. Maybe it is an effort by Sanderson to spice her up, but she is a hodgepodge of traits thrown together and I don’t see the connecting threads. And about Kaladin. He’s an idiot.

This is a fine follow-up though on The Way of Kings. The pace is ramped up, the plot thickens and the characters and lore are deepened out. Especially the latter half of the novel has many intriguing, memorable scenes. Adolin, Kaladin and Shallan each have their rough edges, but when they are together they seem to grow and learn from each other. Very nicely done.

Still, as a series I am not that taken yet with the Stormlight Archive. This book too felt bloated and not all character development felt natural to me. The dialogue seems very contemporary and a bit juvenile. Also, the Parshendi, who seem to be the White Walkers of this series, are not at all intimidating. The greater conflict stays hazy even after 2000 pages. Sanderson as a writer is all about plot and systems of magic, and admittedly those are very strong in this series. But too many small annoyances with the characters, dialogue and story bloat are deflating my sense of epic wonder.

Rating: 8/10

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American Made (2017) Review

American Made7/10

This is what Tom Cruise does best. Let him prance around in fancy shirts and sunglasses. Let him smirk at people, stare into their eyes and ask them to trust him. This is much better that what he got offered in The Mummy (2017), a misdirected film in many ways. American Made the perfect summer action flick for Cruise, because he is an actor who floats on an aura of celebrity instead of acting chops and action films is where he is in his element. Fun, fast-paced and not too demanding for both actors and viewers.

The story of American Made fits in the recent hype of get-rich-fast films that was kick-started by The Wolf of Wall Street. Other similar stories are found in War Dogs (2016), Gold (2016) and the films and books about Howard Marks: Mr. Nice (2010). Cruise’s character Barry Seal is not the yelling, erratic man that DiCaprio portrayed but more someone who is simply bored with his life and says yes to anything. The CIA, personified by Domhnall Gleeson, just drags him into it and he does whatever they say. When the Colombian cartels and Central American insurgents then start making demands too, he keeps on saying yes and ends up working for everyone.

Speaking of Domhnall Gleeson, his CIA agent is a great side character. Not exactly intimidating, but slippery and not to be trusted. The film is light on the side characters. Seal’s family and co-pilots stay largely unknown and Pablo Escobar is little more than a cameo in the story. Instead, we see many recordings of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to firmly anchor this film in a certain era. The color schemes also forcefully stamp this movie in the 70s, but it is little more than embellishment. The story is all about impromptu adventures and about Tom Cruise the actor.

American Made is above all fast-paced and fun. It has no stomach for morality tales, to the point that when things inevitably start to get bad and really bad, Seal’s family doesn’t seem to suffer much and comes out of it without much tears. It does make you wonder whether it was possible for Barry Seal to step away from all these crime adventures. Basically, from the moment Domhnall Gleeson approaches him and talks about off the record business, he is trapped, both by his own enthusiasm and by the system.

The editing is a bit frantic but effective. The film did feel a bit cluttered, because some random shots of cartoons to explain the logistics jumped into it, and some webcam recordings that really should have been cut from the film since they paused the story too much. The action scenes in Colombia are well shot, both comedic and exciting.

Above all, this is the kind of movie that both Tom Cruise and we the regular film-goers need to cleanse our palate from a series of disappointing franchise-blockbusters this summer.

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George R.R. Martin – Tuf Voyaging (1986) Review

Tuf Voyaging

  • Genre: science fiction
  • pages: 435
  • My rating: 6/10

Long before George R.R. Martin became a household name due to his great success with A Song of Ice and Fire, he used to write science fiction. Mostly short stories, written in the 70s and 80s. Now, with the success of his epic fantasy series, publishes saw an opportunity to re-issue his short stories in a couple of nice editions. Most of these stories are now collected in a two-volume collection named Dreamsongs, but here we have third collection – Tuf Voyaging – that binds a handful of his stories together with a shared theme.

Tuf Voyaging hold seven short stories about an astronaut named Haviland Tuf. Martin wrote all these seven stories sometime between 1978 and 1986. Haviland Tuf is a space trader who comes into the possession of a powerful spacecraft, which used to be a ship of the Ecological Engineering Corps. With this spacecraft, Tuf holds the power to tackle all the various problems of the human settlers in their colonies on faraway worlds. So begins Tuf’s adventures in space, where he has to use his ingenuity to deal with the strangest problems.

Tuf is not a typical action hero. Tall, bald, overweight, with a fondness for cats; a bit like the guy who plays Varys in the Game of Thrones TV series. Martin wanted his stories to have a dark comedy in them, in the way that Jack Vance used to present his stories. The premise of Tuf helping out people on other planets with ingenuity also sounds very similar to Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad and The Star Diaries. But Jack Vance’s influence is the strongest, and immediately recognizable in Haviland Tuf’s speech patterns. But since Tuf is the only one speaking in a dry, elaborate manner, he comes across as an odd person.

Whether these stories work for you, depends on whether you like Tuf and whether the rather simple plotlines interest you at all. The stories themselves are very episodic with colorful characters, and Tuf himself is somewhat of an oddity. He is unsociable, patronizing and his manner of speaking can work on your nerves, so much so that I often fully understood those who got mad at him. In Jack Vance’s stories, it worked because Vance’s entire style had a dark comedy of manners to it (and he was a better writer than early Martin), but when your main character is the only one acting weird, he turns into a self-centered dickhead.

Tuf Voyaging2

I like this French cover

So, he is unlikable. But he is also a unique character to find its way into a space story. He’s memorable, at least.

The stories:

The Plague Star. Our introduction to Haviland, and the story of how he got his powerful ship Ark. A motley group of traders, a mercenary, an android, a soldier and a scientist team up to search for an ancient artifact of immense value, and they hire Haviland and his crappy little ship to fly them there. The story moves fast, but its plot is pretty standard and the characters are cartoonish. Lots of action and infodumps, but nothing about it is intriguing. The whole thing reminded me of a Saturday-morning cartoon. 3/5

Loaves and Fishes. Tuf flies his ship to an overpopulated planet for repairs. For the deal, he solves a famine with his bioengineering ship. This story works better because the amount of cartoonish side characters is thinned down. Tuf mainly interacts with Tolly Mune, a practical old woman. She is a good counterweight to Tuf. The story just shows Tuf solving the problem without breaking a sweat, the end. There wasn’t much to it. 3.5/5

Guardians. Tuf flies to a planet that is terrorized by sea-monsters. He comes up with a solution and rather arrogantly shows that everyone was stupid and should have listened to him. I’m not sure what a story like this is supposed to accomplish. Tuf gets a comeuppance but he is not shown as a sympathetic character at all. The story has no further surprises. 3/5

Second Helpings. We are back at Tolly Mune’s. The Mune stories are the best of the collection. This one starts out great but sort of fizzles out without a conclusion. It is a ham-fisted commentary on religion and population growth and Haviland Tuf uses his cats for passive aggressive communication. 3/5

A Beast for Norn. Tuf is asked to clone a monster for an arena fight. Tuf has no stomach for this tradition and has a devious idea. Rather predictable. 3/5

Call him Moses. This story is just awful. Tuf takes an indentured slave, showing what an ass he is. He turns into a monster. It’s full of mediocre religious tropes. Tuf is too wordy, the story is tedious, full of infodumps and takes forever to get to the point. 1/5

Manna From Heaven. By this point I could hardly bring myself to read another one, but this was the last Tolly Mune story. Tuf returns again to the planet of overpopulation, devices another solution. He’s convinced that he should play god now. 3/5

I have no reasons left to recommend these stories. I’m very underwhelmed and had trouble getting through it. This is clearly the work of a starting writer who is yet to develop a finer sense of character depth. The stories themselves are also rather bland and play out in predictable ways. The action is cartoonish and the universe gets no more than a surface-level presentation, full of second-rate tropes. What confuses me the most is what Martin’s plan was for the characterization of Haviland Tuf. Martin confused Vance’s brilliant style for verbosity, and Tuf’s monologues are annoying instead of funny. He is an arrogant, difficult man and seeing him being right gives no comedy or sense of justice. And he just gets worse as the stories unfold.

I think it was with good reason that Martin’s Tuf stories disappeared into obscurity, and only with the success of A Song of Ice and Fire were they dusted off for a reprint. They seemed intriguing at first glance, but even halfway through the first story I got a sinking feeling in my stomach that this was going to be bad. Seven Haviland Tuf stories was too much, because they are very repetitive as well. If you’re looking for funny mannerisms and a rich universe full of rather brilliant throwaway ideas about interplanetary civilization, you will be better off with Jack Vance and Stanislaw Lem.

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N.K. Jemisin – The Stone Sky (2017) Review

The Stone Sky

  • Genre: fantasy, science-fantasy, post-apocalypse
  • Series: The Broken Earth, part 3
  • Pages: 416

The final book of the Broken Earth trilogy. The story continues right where The Obelisk Gate left it. Essun is still with Ykka and the Castrima comm, but they are on the move after the disastrous conflict with Rennanis. Castrima is still an experiment to see whether roggas and stills can muster enough faith to live together. Nassun attaches herself to Schaffa, who is a sort-of stand-in father for her. Schaffa himself has changed enough from being a regular Guardian to make Nassun’s attachment something other than Stockholm syndrome. They too are on the move, including the loyal Obelisks that follow them in the sky. Hoa, the stone boy, gets his own point of view chapters.

The Stone Sky is not a high-octane story full of action. Like The Obelisk Gate, it follows Essun and Nassun on rather slow paths of personal change, with the difference that they now both travel for long distances. While a deeper exploration of past civilizations is also included and is quite interesting by itself, it is the emotional connections and relationships between the characters that make this novel great. The final third is a whirlwind of both epic and emotionally hard-hitting scenes, where the fate of the characters and the whole planet itself are intertwined.

The beauty of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy lies in her mature exploration of trauma. Essun and Nassun are very realistic and traumatic characters, but the entire world and society in this series revolves around trauma. There is personal trauma and geological trauma, and Jemisin makes an elegant equation between the two, where the Orogenes form the link in between. Tectonic stress equals unresolved emotion. A city built upon a geological fault line equals a dream or a personality built upon pain. She explains one with the other. What, for example, are the Guardians if not the guardians of keeping a dream alive, only to prevent the healing of a deeper pain? Jemisin’s world-building is a layout of the human psyche, even including a traumatized father Earth.

The Fifth Season (2015) started with the destruction of the world, which was an emotional liberation and the start of a story of emotional healing. The first novel followed Essun in various moments in her life, showing how her personality was shaped over time through repeated traumatic experiences. In her first meeting with a Guardian, for example, her hand is broken and that pain is the foundation for a change in character. The Obelisk Gate (2016) kept following her journey of personal change after the great rift, all the while exploring how we are the product of the people we meet in our lives. A parallel journey shows her daughter Nassun, who is also being chiseled by fateful encounters, going down a similar path of trauma as her mother. A meeting between them will surely be earth-shattering, both literal and emotional. Thus, The Stone Sky (2017) becomes about confronting yourself via your own children.

Jemisin’s world-building is incredibly grim and the sources of pain and trauma are always oppression of one people by another people. She magnifies this to an extreme, and frankly, these messages are so overblown that it takes me out of the story. Every chapter ends with an historical account of Orogenes sacrificing themselves or doing good and getting murdered for it. I get it. Stop repeating it again and again. But the ultimate question becomes: is this a world worth saving? Will the Castrima experiment of roggas and stills living together work out?

This book series has a very strong emotional core that is easily as well-crafted as its world. In fact, this world-building does not quite work for me when talking about the social structures, even though the orogeny is fascinating and Jemisin’s research into geology brings a depth to it. But the main reason that the story works is the character-building. Essun and Nassun feel like real people and their emotional struggles are realistic. They play out in a way that makes me suspect that Jemisin poured a lot of herself into this series.

The Stone Sky is a great conclusion to a series that I’m sure will stand the test of time as a classic. This is the best series to ever feature a mother as the chief heroine, with a masterful treatment of all the heavy, emotional relationships that come with that, including a deep, respectful treatment of trauma, confrontation and personal growth. Add to that a fascinating, unique science-fantasy world that ties directly into Essun’s personal struggles and we get a work of singular power.

  • My rating: 9/10
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Dave Hutchinson – Europe at Midnight (2015) Review

Europe at Midnight

  • Genre: science fiction
  • Pages: 303
  • My rating: 8.5/10

Much like its predecessor, Europe at Midnight is a fragmented novel. Dave Hutchinson’s remarkable science fiction series is about the fragmentation and fragile unity of the continent Europe. Our own version of Europe lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes. It is fragmented by geography, history and cultures, but a countervailing force nevertheless leads to reasonably stable countries, cultural mingling and to institutions like the European Union and, dare I say it, shows like the Eurovision song contest, so that the current political shape of Europe looks like it is hanging in a precarious equilibrium.

Hutchinson’s first novel, Europe in Autumn (2014), explored deep fragmentation; a continent of hundreds of nations. The protagonist of that novel, Rudi, jumped the sprawling borders as a member of a secret spy society. Like a John le Carre novel, Rudi dealt with Estonians, Hungarians, Poles and many others in Central European cities, eventually ending up on the trail of a secret. This secret hinted at a deeper reality and a hidden countervailing united force. Europe at Midnight takes off from there. Chronologically, it plays out during the events of the preceding novel, but thematically it tackles the second idea of a united force. And just like the fragmentation was more visible in Europe in Autumn, so is the united force a more concrete reality in Midnight.

The core storyline follows Rupert ‘Rupe’ of Hentzau, who slowly discovers that he finds himself in a situation straight from The Matrix. It’s a bit hard to follow, for Hutchinson throws us into the deep end, but we slowly get the point that his world is not the one we know. Instead, he lives in a fascinating version of a college campus that doubles as an independent country, were students and professors form social classes, and his society finds itself in a post-East Germany situation after the fall of the wall. A second storyline follows a secret agent in London named Jim. Both stories are thrilling, full of crime and mystery. After every wall is another wall, many of them invisible.

The story is… disorienting to say the least. I’m not sure I am smart enough to follow every turn and the story does move very fast. Hutchinson throws you into unknown situations time and again with unknown characters, and each time he works his way back to a part of the puzzle that we knew already. It takes a bit of faith to stick with it and the barrage of names and fake-names gets confusing, but it also clicks together again.

What’s interesting is that the hidden mystery that is also a tissue underneath Europe, is presented as a very British thing. A very conservative British thing that does not accept outside cultures. Hutchinson toys with Britishness, the way Susanna Clarke did in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell but in a more contemporary way. Britain has always kept itself apart from the rest of Europe, thinking itself a separate continent, exemplified by their recent departure from the EU. Hutchinson seems to disagree with this sentiment strongly. What exactly is he saying here? That Britain has a strongly conservative streak, and that it is actually deeply enmeshed within Europe, and that this may lie largely hidden and unrecognized? Perhaps. Various ideas about Britishness, old and new, are tried out and their relationship with the rest of Europe differs each time. The Fractured Europe books are short reads, but flirt with many such interpretations.

Hutchinson’s prose is once again a joy to read. I love this guy’s writing. He is sharp and witty without being edgy; intelligent, wry and comedic. Not only that, but he visits all the cities in Europe that have been my own travel destinations in the past ten years and I love to read about that. The characters don’t come across as deep or rounded, since he is too busy cutting and pasting together a complicated plot, but the way it all comes together is quite a journey. This SF series is one of the more sophisticated and layered of the last decades.

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