Five Kinds of Aliens by Sue Thomason

I think there are 5 kinds of aliens.

explosion-123690_640The first kind are The Enemy. Their aim is to destroy our way of life. They come over here, they don’t speak our language, they look funny, they take our jobs, they use super-advanced weapons of mass destruction on us. They are malign and scary – but we don’t have to get too scared, because in the end we know they cannot win. If they don’t end up being defeated by the superior strength, virtue and/or intelligence of a Chosen Few, they will undoubtedly be vanquished by the common cold, an inability to use stairs, or as a last resort they will explode with incomprehension when confronted with our sense of humour. I can’t help feeling that these aliens are a product of colonial guilt. We’re scared that They are going to do to Us what We did to Them. We maybe have not yet learned to distrust stairs. This kind of story may help us to confront our fear of Others without having to project that fear onto real individual human beings.

alien-1534979_640The second kind of aliens are benign superbeings who attempt to sort out some or all of our major problems. They are usually either humanoid (tall, pale, thin, bigheaded, bald) or bodiless “more advanced” quasi-spirit-beings (tech version of angels). Their efforts at uplift often fail, or have unforeseen unfortunate results. These aliens may also be a colonial if-only; Noble Administrators who want to improve the lot of lesser races species – what we would like to have been. The Noble Administrators tend to show up our imaginative deficiencies, in that we can’t work out for real how to be SuperNice, or how to solve our current problems. This kind of story runs the risk of encouraging inertia, either through complacency (“I don’t have to worry about this; the Superbeings will fix it”) or through despair (“Not even Superbeings can fix this; there’s no point in me trying”). We seem to be not very good at imagining people who are better than Us.

The third kind of aliens are cute-but-fierce pets: Chewbacca, the Kzin. They tend to demonstrate at least some of the dog/Boy Scout virtues; they also tend to be not quite as good as Us at something important to the plot. They like us (give or take a few wars in the past). These aliens are the lesser races species we were hoping to find out there, so that we could be nice to them, and they could be grateful to us. This kind of story is probably most helpful for people with allergies to dogs/cats/etc.


The fourth kind of aliens are Weird Biology. Intelligent sea cucumbers. Intelligent hive-mind quasi-insect colonies. Intelligent vacuum-dwellers. Intelligent rocks. They come from a combination of human astonishment at the variety of known life, and the human tendency to personify everything. As beings they combine fascinating scientific puzzles (“What’s their metabolism? How do they communicate?”) with delightful exercises in empathy (“What does it feel like to be an intelligent rock?). The best of these stories are truly engaging and thought-provoking; the less good read like animated textbooks.

The fifth kind of aliens are Us.

Sue ThomasonSue Thomason lives in rural North Yorkshire, near the sea, with an ex-GP and up to 5 cats. Varied involvement with written SF has included a handful of published short stories, reviewing for both VECTOR and FOUNDATION, co-editing an anthology of locally-based SF/F stories, and being Chair of Milford.  She writes fiction mostly for her own entertainment and to find out what happens (often this surprises her). Her other interests include outdoor pursuits, gardening, classical/early/folk music, and collecting interesting or unusual paper clips.

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David Gullen Interviews Anna Jackson

This week we have a Q&A with SF&F editor Anna Jackson.  Big thanks to Anna from David Gullen for taking the time to answer his questions with such interesting, clear and informative answers.


Hello Anna. Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed for the Milford SF Blog. Please tell us about your current role.

Anna Jackson_400x400I’m Senior Editor at the science fiction and fantasy imprint Orbit – part of Little, Brown Book Group. It’s my job to steer authors and their books right through from the initial commissioning stage to publication and beyond. My role involves looking out for new writing talent, negotiating book deals, structurally editing manuscripts, devising titles, jacket copy and cover design concepts, and working with sales, marketing and publicity teams to successfully bring books to the market. It’s a really varied, interesting and creative job, and I love what I do.

What drew you to the publishing world, and why did you want to become an editor?

It was definitely my love of books. I’ve always been a keen reader, but it was during my university degree that I particularly developed a love for closely analysing literature. I loved the idea of working with authors creatively and being involved in discovering the new writing talents of the future.

What do you think a writer should expect from their editor?

They should expect their editor to work hard with them on making sure that the final manuscript which goes to print is the very best it can be, and will provide a satisfying reading experience for the target readership. To do this, the editor needs to be able to judge the manuscript with an objective eye, to have a strong market awareness, to be able to give rigorous constructive criticism and ultimately, to be honest with the author. A writer should also expect the editor to do everything in their power to make sure that the book reaches its target market. The editor needs to be a great ambassador for the book and to be able to convey their passion for it in an effective way – so that their enthusiasm can spread through the publishing house and on to the book retailers and the target readership.

Does your working day, or week, have a structure?

My working day in the office mainly involves a lot of email communication, discussing publishing strategy with the rest of the team and writing all kinds of sales copy. I think that many people who don’t work in publishing imagine that editors just sit in the office and read all day. But the reality is that there are so many other necessary tasks that we need to perform that we actually have to do most of our reading outside office hours, in the evening and on weekends. Luckily though, most editors are more than happy to do reading in their spare time!

Who wrote your favourite childhood books, and what was so important about those books for you?

There are probably no surprises here: Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien – I just loved how it took me to a whole new world but with characters who felt so relatable and likeable. Boy by Roald Dahl – it features so many amusing episodes which made me laugh and gave me such a warm feeling in my tummy…The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton and Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger – both of these really spoke to me, and connected with all the mixed-up feelings I had as a teenager…Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – I was so awed by how powerful and poetic it was, and it definitely inspired me to work in science fiction.

What are the three great secrets to being a good editor?

You need to get good at delivering criticism in a constructive way – and remember that if you are telling an author all the things that are wrong with a book, it helps to also list all the things that are right! Because it can be very hard for authors to receive just a whole bucketful of negative feedback.

You need to be patient, understanding but also tenacious – and you need to be prepared to help an author through many, many drafts of a manuscript when they are finding it a struggle to get their book to work. Your persistence will pay off.

You also need to know when to let something go – because at the end of the day, it’s the author’s work, and they have the final say on how they want their book to turn out. As an editor, you’re just a guiding voice, not a dictator!

How do you know when you’ve got a truly great book?

When it excites you so much that you simply do not want to put it down. Whilst reading it, you resent having to do any other activity which distracts you from reading the book. When you’ve finished it, you’re sad it’s over and want to read it all again. You also instantly want to tell at least ten other people about the book and convince them that they need to read it. I’ve been very lucky to work on a large number books like this, but three particular ones which spring to mind right now are The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey, Touch by Claire North and The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp.

Is it difficult to turn off your editorial eye and simply read for pleasure? What do you like to read outside of work, fiction or non-fiction, and favourite authors?

Yes it is hard to turn off my editorial eye – and it’s also hard to carve out the time to read just for pleasure when there’s always an unending pile of manuscripts to read for work. But I do still manage to find some time to read just for pleasure – especially on holiday. I like to read a whole range of fiction. I try to read a good selection of the books which have won the major awards like the Man Booker, the Costa, the Arthur C. Clarke award etc…I’m not a huge reader of non-fiction, though now that I’ve had a child I’ve needed to refer to lots of parenting books!

Do you have any favourite writing style and technique books you can recommend for writers?

I’d really recommend Stephen King’s On writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Not only is it a really fascinating autobiography of this grand master of fiction, but it also offers some fantastic in-depth advice on writing technique, encouraging authors to write concisely and cut out the fat in their manuscript…Any aspiring authors should also read Carole Blake’s From Pitch To Publication, as it contains many tips which will help you immensely on your journey to getting published.

gullen-dkg1-2012David Gullen
David was born in South Africa and baptised by King Neptune at the equator. His short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including New Scientist’s ARC, Albedo 1, and the Sensorama anthology from Eibonvale. He is a winner of the Aeon Award and been shortlisted for the James White Award. His novel, Shopocalypse, was published by Clarion (2013) and will be re-issued by NewCon Press later this year. He is also one of the judges for the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award. David lives in Surrey, England, with the fantasy writer Gaie Sebold and too many tree ferns. He is currently the chair of Milford SF Writers.

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Why everyone should be a science fiction fan, by Ben Jeapes

Giles Coren’s first and so far only novel, Winkler, was published in 2005. He got a £30k advance, it was slated in reviews, it won a Bad Sex Award, and combined hardback and paperback sales barely nudged the 1000 mark. He retired hurt, not to mention baffled, and stuck to non-fiction.

GilesCoren-failed bookTen years later he felt brave enough to make a documentary about it. Links have changed since I first saw it, but search “Giles Coren my failed novel” and you’ll find it. It’s really quite touching as you see the penny begin to drop. He speaks to the reviewers who had slated it. He listens in on a book club tearing it apart. He takes the first chapters to a creative writing course workshop. He tries rereading it himself and finds it unbearable. (He can’t get through the Bad Sex Award-winning passage without breaking down into laughter.) He listenes in awe to the likes of David Mitchell and Jeffrey Archer as they describe their highly disciplined writing habits, and admits to the latter that he had basically been lazy.

And he comes to the conclusion that this was the first novel everyone has – the one that should be written and then spend the rest of eternity in a trunk in the attic. Only, because he was Giles Coren, his got sold for a £30k advance. You sense that even he feels the injustice of this. No one likes being done a favour.

But here’s the thing. Coren was born in 1969. He’s in his late 40s, but I can’t imagine his discoveries and revelations being news to anyone past their late 20s or even late teens. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been spoiled by growing up in the science fiction community, where expertise and experience flow like milk and honey. I read Dave Langford’s columns in 8000 Plus. I went to Milford. I jostled with the large crowd trying to get through the narrow doorway of Interzone acceptance. I knew it took hard work. I knew that if you didn’t think this was your best yet then you didn’t send it in. How did anyone not know that?

Conclusion: everyone should be an sf fan.

One thing Coren doesn’t do is confront his agent or his editor of ten years ago to ask what the hell they thought they were doing, letting it be published in the first place. They must have known it was rubbish. Sadly, we can probably guess the answer: he was Giles Coren and they assumed it would sell. You can’t blame them for the commercial realities of life.

The programme ends on a high note with Coren talking to William Nicholson, who is in his late sixties, the winner of many awards, and who thinks he’s just about getting the hang of it now.

The one drawback of the entire show is that for a terrible five minutes I found myself warming to Jeffrey Archer.


bjeapes01Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 7 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer. His first Milford was at Margate in 1991, which shows (a) how far Milford has come in the past 26 years and (b) qualifies him as a Great Old One, in Milford terms at least.

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Stepping Over the Bones by Matt Colborn

The other day, seeking inspiration on the Internet, I came across the following:

“There is no happily ever after in life, or in the career you’re building. There’s no gold medal. No end to the race. There is just the endless marathon through a desert teaming with snakes and jagged rocks and riddled with the bones of exhausted colleagues who have fallen along the way.”

This statement, by Locus blogger Kameron Hurley, sums up how a lot of professional writers seem to feel. There’s no sense of joy, just a miserable, endless slog to the career grave. But how do professional writers end up like this? And why do they seem to accept it

A fictional example may help. Guido, a young lad in Michael Ende’s children’s novel Momo, becomes popular by making up fabulous stories about the town in which he lives. To begin with, he tells these stories for the joy of it, and they are wild, imaginative and exciting.

This is bad news for the villains in the book, the grey men who steal time, who decide to neutralize Guido. They do this by giving him his heart’s desire. First, he gets in a newspaper, and then is ‘discovered’ by television and radio. Soon he is famous, in demand, and completely miserable.

I’m sure that Guido’s dilemma sounds very familiar. There is the sense that fun will be jettisoned as one’s career develops, and professional commitments squeeze out silly daydreams. The transition from amateur to professional, then, is the change from a giddy daydreamer to a serious-minded, professional adult.

But if professional life is really so miserable, and demands the sacrifice of vitality and playfulness, is it worth the effort? What is the use of selling a million copies of a book, if you’re left a hollow shell, robotically writing the next New York Times bestseller? Even worse, what if you jettison those precious parts of yourself, and fail anyway?

It is my belief that maturity, in any part of life, should not mean slaughtering one’s soul.

When developing a professional writing career, there is always a danger that extrinsic motivations will begin to seem more important than intrinsic reasons for writing. This is one of the seductions of becoming a professional.

Extrinsic motivations are things like money, or getting your short stories and novels published, getting fabulous reviews, gaining a large online audience and maybe even an award or two. Extrinsic motivation also has a negative side, called fear.

Intrinsic motivation, by contrast, means play and imagination. It means writing for the fun of it, taking pride in one’s work, and enjoying the act of creation.

The problem is that extrinsic motivations tend to stifle intrinsic motivations. It’s quite striking, sometimes, how many professional column writers tend to focus on the external and tangible at the expense of the inner.

This switch in motivations occurs because of the conflict between the imaginative life and surviving in capitalism. Ursula Le Guin was correct to say that “the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed,” and that “amused contempt is about the pleasantest emotion either partner feels for the other.”

This conflict is most visible when authors feel forced to ‘brand’ and market themselves as disposable products. It is perhaps an indicator of how deeply consumerist values have penetrated that we don’t see how inhumane this demand actually is.

The solution to this is to go back to basics, and remember what got us excited about storytelling in the first place.

When I first started telling stories, as a small child, I had no thought of publication. Like Guido, I loved exploring imaginary and fantastic worlds. For me, storytelling was an expression of the rich, often frightening but always vital world in which I lived.

Good writing demands the recovery of that inner life, and a refusal to be dominated by money, fame or fear. The imagination, which is like fire, needs air to breathe.

Kameron’s Hurley’s column
‘Staying Awaken’ by Ursula Le Guin

matt-colborn-mugshotMatt Colborn is a freelance writer and academic with a doctorate in cognitive science. He has written for the Guardian as well as SFX and Interzone magazines. He writes across the spectrum of speculative fiction. He published a collection of short fiction, ‘City in the Dusk and Other Stories,’ in 2013 and is currently completing a novel. His website is at

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Pick and Mix Story Ideas

2012-09 Milford Trigonos

Picture Prompt 1

Contributors: Jim Anderson, Jacey Bedford, Karen Brenchley, Dave Gullen, Jackie Hatton, Terry Jackman, Ben Jeapes, Sue Thomason. (All picture prompt images (c) Jacey Bedford.)

Readers often ask writers where they get their ideas from. Most writers have more ideas than they can ever use, therefore not all of them are developed. The writers credited above contributed random story ideas for your edification and delight.

Give the same prompt to ten different writers and you’ll end up with ten completely different stories. You can even use the same prompt more than once.

Picture prompt:

  1. “Space travel has a very high energy cost and very high levels of emissions. Surely it is against any commitment to sustainability for this to be permitted ‘for fun’.” (quote from recent newspaper)
  2. Too busy for a real holiday I book a VR holiday. I’m sitting in the VR aeroplane and somebody hijacks it.
  3. Roll up, roll up. See the world’s smallest dragon…
  4. ‘Rights broker’ for different classes of being (e.g. human with genetic upgrades) – rights (to live, to work etc.) are treated as commodities.
  5. In 2005, a representative of the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company told the BBC that their London map-book contained more than 100 fabricated (i.e. fictional) streets. (condensed from recent copy of THE BIG ISSUE)
  6. If you’re swinging from a rope inside a long brick tube with daylight a hundred feet above you, do you climb up or down? It all depends whether it’s a chimney or a well.
  7. As a combination of To Serve Man and Masterchef, what sort of story can people make out of human cuisine as a new delicacy on an alien world.
  8. You’re much less likely to encounter wandering monsters when following a road.
  9. A woman living in a small country village awakens to a great shuddering thud. She rushes outside expecting to find a fallen tree. Instead she finds a largish metallic sphere.
  10. One day gravity inverts and everything falls up into the sky.


    Picture Prompt 2

  11. First contact between invisible, mass-sensing aliens and humans, who can’t see them.
  12. Smile. The corners of her mouth drew back suddenly like playhouse curtains opening for the final act of a macabre mystery.
  13. Person followed everywhere by ghost of 2-year-old toddler child they don’t have – child is left over from temporal realignment.
  14. “My vegetable love shall grow (Vaster than empires and more slow)” — To His Coy Mistress. I know some people love their vegetables, but this could become… horrifying.
  15. A tale of life at one of the stops on the underground railway smuggling the last of the faeries to a safe place.
  16. Shipcomp, please. Ten years on a space ship is such a long time to be cooped up together – can you prove your love will last the journey?
  17. Rowan tree – mountain ash – a magical tree in suburbia.
  18. “Well now, It’s all a matter of how much offspring are worth in the current market, Madam. These things fluctuate quite a lot, you know.”
  19. Guinevere’s second-youngest sister
  20. “We knew the tide had turned when the number of civilians shot for cannibalism began to go down.”
2012-09 Carnarfon Castle walls

Picture prompt 3

11-00 thin ice

Picture prompt 4

Ilkley Moor cross 2-sm

Picture prompt 5

2002 wallclimb

Picture prompt 6

Tree Fire 005

Picture prompt 7

US March 03 Silver Birch in snow

Picture prompt 8

US March 03 026

Picture prompt 9

stonegate dark 2

Pictire prompt 10


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Make Me Care by Sue Thomason

Writer, I have just picked up your novel, and I’m reading the opening pages. I’ve opened the door of the mind-transporter; here comes my first glimpse of a whole new world. It looks good, and something fascinating is going on over there… And then this big hairy bloodspattered guy walks casually over, sword in one hand, blaster in the other, and he smells of garlic and belches into my face, and I slam the transporter door closed and put it hastily back on the shelf because I don’t want to spend the next few hours sitting next to him. The problem here, Writer, is that I have not warmed to your protagonist.

Big problem.

Last time I critted an opening-chapter protagonist I didn’t warm to, Writer’s reply was “I’ll make him nicer.”

And I thought, that isn’t quite what I need. I’m happy to spend time with people who aren’t nice. Paul Atreides isn’t nice; neither is Sparrowhawk. Breq Mianaai isn’t nice. Granny Weatherwax isn’t nice. So what exactly is the problem here?

Then I found a quote from John Yorke’s book INTO THE WOODS: “The protagonist is… the person the audience care most about. ‘Care’ is often translated as ‘like’, which is why so many writers are given the note ‘Can you make them nice?’” And I thought YES, that’s it! Protagonist, you don’t have to be nice, but you do have to care about stuff, and you have to make me care about that stuff too. You have to show me your agenda, part of it at least. If I don’t understand what you’re doing straight away, I have to have a reason to want to hang around and find out more. We have to build a good relationship, fast; in the opening pages. You have to win my trust, to convince me that whatever you’re telling the rest of the cast, you’re being honest with me, you’re opening up to me. The garlic’s because of the ongoing vampire problem. You’re spattered with blood because you’ve just come from the field hospital. The sword is your recently-dead sister’s, the blaster is a sterile-field generator, you’re hairy because you’ve just worked a triple shift trying to save as many people as possible, with no time off for grooming. You’re sorry about the belch; coming off-shift you were so thirsty that you drank a litre of Choke. And you’ve always hated being so big. You bang your head on doorframes, your feet stick off the end of your sleep-mat, and people are scared of you because you’re big. You so hate that.

Now – too late – now I’m starting to understand. If I had known all that, or even some of that, before I met you, I wouldn’t have slammed the door on you. You’re bitter; yes, I’m really not surprised. You’re twisted; yes, who wouldn’t be, after what you’ve gone through? You’ve done some dreadful things, killing your sister for example; some people might call that monstrous, but I can see why you thought it was right, why you felt you had to do that. I understand. I empathise. I want to support you now; I’m cheering for you. You’re telling me your story, and I care about how it comes out. I hope you solve your problems. I want you to survive, and learn, and change. I want to spend an evening with you, sometime soon. I’ll buy dinner. Tell me more…

Sue Thomason

Sue Thomason

I currently live in rural North Yorkshire, near the sea, with an ex-GP and up to 5 cats. Varied involvement with written SF has included a handful of published short stories, reviewing for both VECTOR and FOUNDATION, co-editing an anthology of locally-based SF/F stories, and being Chair of Milford.  I write fiction mostly for my own entertainment and to find out what happens (often this surprises me). My other interests include outdoor pursuits, gardening, classical/early/folk music, and collecting interesting or unusual paper clips.


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I don’t know what colour the wallpaper is – by Marion Pitman

wallpaperI don’t know what colour the wallpaper is, or what flowers are growing in the garden. I only work out with an enormous effort what season it is, what the weather is doing, what day of the week it is. I’m not talking about my everyday life – well, not every day. If there is some telling detail – the smell of stale beer, chewing gum under the table, the sound of seagulls in hobnailed boots dancing on the roof – that will, for me, suffice for atmosphere. World building is not my thing. It took me three years to finish reading the Lord of the Rings – whole chapters of nothing but weather. Apparently that was something Tolkien and Lewis had in common – a passion for weather.

If you ask me which comes first for me, character or plot, I’d have to say neither – what comes first is story, people in a situation, in a relationship or network of relationships. Story is not plot. Plot has to be worked out once you know the story. You can tell the same story with different plots. And you can do the relationships with different characters.

If I’m trying to write something in a particular setting, or with particular characters, my mind is a blank until I can find a story that suits that setting or those characters. A Story – ancient, immortal, winding through human minds since there were such things. And it doesn’t boil down to boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets eaten by something from the outer darkness.

I go to story telling sessions, occasionally tell a story. You hear all sorts of stories – anecdotes, extended jokes, shaggy dog stories, folk tales, ghost stories, re-tellings of epics or ancient myths. You’ve usually got about ten minutes, max. So in terms of story length it’s a short-short. You’ve got to grab the audience and get them to listen, and follow what’s happening – they can’t turn back to check a detail. You have to set the scene very quickly – There was a king, and he had three sons; there was a woodcutter who was very poor, and couldn’t feed his children; three giraffes walk into a bar; I was staying in a small hotel on Dartmoor – there is no time to describe the wallpaper, unless it has a vital bearing on the story. You may repeat a phrase, to keep people following on; it will be a memorable phrase, and central to the story. But the story is the main thing.

Music Bone cover 01cAnd, rather unfortunately, that’s the way I tend to write. I often have to go back and put in descriptive detail afterwards. I often don’t even know in any detail what the characters look like. What my characters do, in spades, is talk. Sometimes there’s nothing but conversation for pages – which can get on people’s nerves, after all.

(I read somewhere that E. M. Forster once said, “The novel tells a story – oh dear, yes, I suppose it does.” He would have preferred to be freed from the necessity.)

A traditional story is timeless, the location is wherever the story is told, the characters are archetypes. The listener can project characteristics on to them; they themselves have only the minimum necessary for the story to work out. The writer of fiction takes Story and gives it a local habitation and a name. Some people do this brilliantly; every word they write pins the thing in time and space (which, if it’s contemporary, is fine if you write fast and have a publisher; if you’re trying to sell the thing five years later you have to keep changing the details – but I digress). The characters become individuals the reader would know if they met them – people with a back story, with idiosyncrasies – and of course wallpaper.

I can see the appeal of this. But is there not also an appeal in pure story – story that can happen anywhere, to anyone, at any time? Unless it is yellow, do we need to know the colour of the wallpaper?

Marion & bookMarion Pitman sells second-hand books on the internet and pretends it brings in a living. Her first short-story collection, Music in the Bone, came out from Alchemy Press in 2016, and her short fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. She mostly writes ghost stories, but also dabbles in science fiction, fantasy and westerns. She has no cats, and would like to live in Piccadilly, in a flat like Lord Peter Wimsey’s.

Marion’s story collection, Music in the Bone, is now available from Alchemy Press.

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