Foundation takes “The Leap” and ends its first season

Welcome to my review of the final episode of Foundation, which is a day late, because I had tech issues as explained here. Reviews of previous episodes of Foundation as well as two actual Foundation stories may be found here.

For more Foundation discussion, check out the Star’s End and Seldon Crisis podcasts. And if you want even more Foundation discussion, this Tuesday, Joel McKinnon of Seldon Crisis and Paul Levinson of Light On Light Through will discuss season 1 of Foundation.

But now, let’s take a look at the season 1 finale of Foundation.

Warning! Spoilers beneath the cut!

The previous episode of Foundation finally ended with the moment we’ve all been waiting for, namely Hari Seldon’s hologram strutting out of the Time Vault, an insufferably smug grin on his face, to confront the assembled Foudationers, Anacreons and Thespins, who are literally at each other’s throats. As everybody who’s read the books knows, Hari is about to tell everybody what just happened and that he foretold everything. And this exactly what happens.

First of all, Hari tells the Anacreons and Thespins that the cause of their centuries long feud – the murder of an Anacreon grand huntress on her wedding night, supposedly committed by her husband, the Thespin crown prince (the writers can’t even come up with an original scenario for a centuries long feud, but have to crib one from Game of Thrones) – was really a plot initiated by Cleon II to keep the two rim worlds from getting too powerful through their alliance. Of course, we believe him because he’s Hari Seldon and Hari Seldon is always right, except when he’s not (but that’s still centuries in the future). However, the Anacreons and Thespins have no real reason to believe “a ghost” as one of them puts it.

Hari then explains that he predicted the periodic reappearances of the Invictus (of course he did) and that he knew it would show up near Terminus. Then, finally, he pulls out the rug from under the Foundationers, when he tells Salvor’s Mom Mari – after warmly greeting her – that the whole Encyclopedia Galactica project was just a ruse to get a lot of smart and dedicated people to Terminus, where they can begin to build what will become the nucleus of the second Galactic Empire. So now they have three planets – Terminus, Anacreon and Thespis – full of hardened survivors, the collective brains of the Foundation and the Invictus and can start building.

“But what about the Empire?” Salvor, whom Hari obviously does not recognise since she wasn’t even born yet, when he died, asks. Hari or rather his hologram is feeling generous today and so he explains that if the Empire believes everybody on Terminus – including Lord Dorwin and his crew – is dead, they won’t bother to investigate, since they’re already stretched to the limits. He even gives the Foundation a hint how to achieve that, by piloting the Invictus onto the far side of Terminus’ sun and simulating a nova. This is quite unusual, because normally Hari’s hologram just gives cryptic hints. In the first Foundation story, Hari’s hologram just points out that the solution is obvious before flickering off and Salvor Hardin is the one who actually figures what that obvious solution is. That solution, by the way, is scientism, the fake religion that the Foundation uses the control the four kingdoms. The show has completel jettisoned that aspect of the original stories, which is what most annoys me about it, because I always loved the idea of science as a fake religion. There is a possibility we will still get to see it – more on that later – but I’m not hopeful.

Hari is truly feeling generous today, for he also answers the questions of the cute kids we’ve seen on Terminus throughout the show about what it’s like to be dead. He explains that the Time Vault is really Hari’s casket which used nanotech (contained in the capsule we see Hari swallowing in episode 2) to cannibalise Hari’s body as well as any passing meteorites and cosmic dust to install itself on Terminus. We even get an impressive visualisation of this instead of the usual opening credits. So Hari is not a ghost, but a hologram powered by a sophisticated AI which wakes up in times of crisis.

Hari also asks one of the cute kids his name and the kid replies, “Poly Verisov”. Now this is a name that readers of the books should recognise, because in “Bridle and Saddle” a.k.a. “The Mayors”, the second original Foundation story (and third story in the book), an adult Poly Verisov is the Foundation ambassador to Anacreon and also high priest of scientism, the Foundation’s fake religion.  So does this mean that we will get to see scientism after all or will Poly Verisov be as changed as many other characters whose names the series borrowed from the books?

Finally, Salvor asks Hari why he has been sending her visions, since she has been seeing his “ghost” since early childhood. Hari gives Salvor a strange look and then says that whoever sent Salvor the visions, it wasn’t him. Then he struts back into his Vault to sleep for another few decades. When Poly Verisov asks if they’ll see him again, Hari replies that yes, they will. And since Foundation has been renewed for a second season – something that Hari surely predicted – he is right.

Now the first Seldon crisis is over, all that’s left to do on Terminus is mop up the pieces. The Anacreons and Thespins have been convinced that Hari Seldon, the ghost of a man they never met, is right and they all join together, letting bygones by bygones. Phara’s surviving goon lays her body to rest on Terminus and plants a tree next to hit, so Phara can have a bit of Anacreon near her. He also informs Salvor that Phara respected her (though she had one hell of a way of expressing that) and that he was fed up with nutty Phara and her suicide missions anyway, because he has a kid on Anacreon he’s like to see grow up. Finally, he gives Salvor Phara’s bow, which makes her grand huntress, I guess. Meanwhile, Salvor is also about to be elected mayor of Terminus, taking over from her father.

We see the tree grow in a timelapse video, which supposedly covers a few months, but should cover several years, unless trees from Anacreon grow really fast even in alien soil. The Foundationers, Anacreons and Thespins repair the Invictus and plan to build more ships like her, now they have a blueprint. Where do they get the material? Shh, don’t ask complicated questions. The new captain of the Invictus is none other than Hugo, the Thespin trader, who also acquires a surname, Crast, in this episode. Now there is a character named Lumin Crast in the first Foundation story, but he is a member of the Encyclopedia board and a Foundationer, not a trader from the Four Kingdoms. This is another example of the show borrowing the names of minor characters and sticking them on people who have very little to do with the original characters.

However, Hugo still finds the opportunity to visit Salvor on Terminus, while the repairs of the Invictus are ongoing, and they have another round of sex. In the middle of the night, Salvor wakes up with strange dreams again. She heads out to the Time Vault, which is now a floating black thing again, and sees a vision of a black girl running away and finally apparently jumping into water, where there is none.

Since Salvor now knows from the mouth of the man (or rather his hologram) himself that Hari Seldon is not responsible for the visions that have plagued her since childhood, she decides to ask her mother about them. Salvor’s mother, who is after all a leading member of the encyclopedia board, probably the leader now that Lewis Pirenne is dead, is understandably angry that the encyclopedia was just a ruse and that Hari Seldon lied to everybody. Salvor points out that it really doesn’t matter why the Foundation was established and that actual life on Terminus won’t be all that different. Never mind that at least in the books, the Enyclopedia Galactica is published after all and that excerpts thereof serve as an epigraph for every chapter.

Meanwhile, Salvor is still depressed that the visions she’s had since childhood are not from Hari Seldon and that she’s not special. Hear me yelling, “You’re not supposed to be special. You’re supposed to be just a smart person in the right place at the right time” at the screen. Mari assures Salvor that of course she is special. So Salvor decides to ask her mother about the girl from the water planet she sees in her visions on occasion and Mari tells her that’s Gaal Dornick.

However, Mari has more to tell Salvor. Because it turns out that Salvor is not the biological kid of Mari and her late husband. Instead, she comes from the egg and embryo bank aboard the Foundation’s generation ship that we saw back in episode 2.  It is not clear whether Mari and her husband had problems conceiving and therefore opted for a donor pregnancy or whether this is standard procedure among the Foundation, a reproductive key party as AV-Club reviewer Nick Wanserski calls it. Mari may have carried the embryo to term, but Salvor’s biological parents are Gaal Dornick and Raych, which makes her Hari Seldon’s granddaughter. Salvor inherited her psychic abilities from Gaal and possibly Raych, who has latent psychic abilities in the books.

Now Hari Seldon actually does have a psychic granddaughter via Raych in Forward the Foundation. Her name is Wanda Seldon and she is instrumental in establishing what will become the Second Foundation. And while it’s certainly possible that Salvor Hardin in the books is a descendant of Gaal Dornick, we never learn about it, because Salvor’s parentage doesn’t matter to the story at all and Gaal never reappears after the first story anyway, because the character just isn’t that important. In the books, Gaal is pretty much an exposition delivering vehicle, a walking and talking infodump.

So while the decision to make Salvor Gaal’s biological daughter does not contradict the books, simply because the books never mention either character’s family relationships, it’s nonetheless the sort of soap opera plot twist that patently designed to lure in the sort of viewer who only watched Game of Thrones for the soap opera elements. But while soap opera elements absolutely have a place in Game of Thrones, they don’t fit into Foundation at all, because it just isn’t that sort of story. And so the whole thing just feels shoehorned in, even if it is foreshadowed by the embryo extraction scene in episode 2.

After learning about her biological parentage, Salvor makes the leap that the fact that she has been having visions of Gaal means that Gaal must be still out there somewhere. She quizzes Mari regarding where and when exactly Gaal vanished in the escape pod and then decides that she must now find Gaal.

Now I know that many adopted children are eager to find their biological parents, but abruptly deciding in the middle of the night to travel halfway across the galaxy to locate her biological mother who has been missing for more than thirty years makes no real sense. What about the newly widowed Mari? What about Terminus, the planet Salvor was so eager to protect for ten episodes now? What about the Invictus and Hugo? Why throw all that away to search for a woman she’s never met, a woman who may be a murderer as far as Salvor knows?

Still, Salvor is determined and so she sneaks off aboard Hugo’s ship. Hugo intercepts her, they hug and kiss, then Salvor takes off. Of course, Salvor has never been in space except for the brief trip to the Invictus. How does she even know how to pilot a spaceship, let alone navigate or use a jump drive? Who cares, Salvor is special.

Meanwhile, Gaal’s escape pod has finally reached her homeworld of Synnax 138 years after she left behind The Raven and Hari Seldon’s insufferably smug hologram. As anybody except Gaal might have expected, this trip was not a good idea, because the town where Gaal once lived is submerged and all of Synnax appears to be devoid of human life. Maybe the Empire finally did get around the evacuating the people of Synnax. Or maybe they all drowned. Not that it really matters to Gaal, since everybody she knows would be long dead anyway.

But then, Gaal spots a glowing light under the surface of the world ocean which is still remarkably shallow. She dives down, finds a very familiar looking crashed spaceship and finally a suspended animation pod, the source of the mysterious glow. Gaal opens the pod and rescues the occupant who turns out to be Salvor. “I think you’re my Mom”, Salvor informs Gaal.

I understand that they probably did this in order to keep Gaal and Salvor around a little longer, but it’s still a stupid plot development that makes little sense. It also thoroughly upsets “Bridle and Saddle”, should they decide to adapt that next (unless they jump straight to “The Big and the Little”), because in “Bridle and Saddle”, set thirty years after the events of “Foundation/The Encyclopedists), Salvor Hardin is still mayor of Terminus – having won election after election – and faces challenges from a new movement called the Actionist Party as well as a newly emboldened Anacreon. But now Salvor has jumped straight ahead to the era of “The Wedge/The Traders”, where he/she is supposed to be a legendary figure from the past and not an active participant.

Besides, Salvor certainly would have deserved to enjoy her victory and live happily ever after with Hugo and becoming a benevolent semi-dictator. As for Gaal, I wouldn’t have minded if we had never seen Gaal again after the first two episodes, because Gaal simply isn’t very interesting. The script does its best to turn Gaal into more than the walking and talking infodump the character is in the books and there’s nothing wrong with Lou Llobell’s performance, but I still don’t care about Gaal and what happens to her. Having her head off to establish the Second Foundation would have been a good resolution for the character, but otherwise I don’t know why she’s still in the story.

Meanwhile in the Empire, the clone family drama of the Cleons is coming to its inevitable conclusion.  Brother Day, newly returned from his gruelling adventures on the moon of the generic triple goddess religion, first deals with Azura, the sole surviving member of the conspiracy to replace Brother Dawn with a rogue Cleon clone that was uncovered last week. He takes Azura from the cell where she is tied to a chair and then takes a walk with her in the palace gardens.

Day is utterly furious at Azura, not only because she attempted to undermine the genetic dynasty, but also because she hurt Dawn. For Brother Day feels very protective of Dawn, whom he views as his son. After all, he already rocked Dawn as a baby. We actually do see this, when this version of Dawn is decanted and Day tenderly rocks him, while the former Brother Dusk, now Brother Darkness, is disintegrated back in episode 3. At the time, I assumed that this unusual display of tenderness in a galactic tyrant was simply due to Lee Pace just liking babies and reacting to the live baby put in his arms for this scene. Of course, Lee Pace probably really does like babies, but there was a purpose to this scene as well, since it shows that this version of Day, at any rate, has tender feelings for his younger self.

But even if he likes babies or at least Brother Dawn, Brother Day is still a galactic tyrant and he can be a real bastard. We saw a glimpse of that side when he ordered Demerzel to murder Zephyr Halima at a point when the woman had ceased to be a threat. Azura, meanwhile, gets the full brunt of Brother Day being a bastard. And so he tells her that his people have tracked down anybody who ever passed through Azura’s life, close and distant family members, friends, co-workers, lovers (Azura is bisexual, we learn), 1551 people altogether. Any one of those 1551 people might remember Azura and wonder what happened to her or might even know that the current Brother Dawn is an imperfect clone, so Day has them all eliminated with the snap of a finger. It’s not the deadliest finger snap in filmic history – Thanos has him beat there – but it’s still an impressively awful thing to do. Though it would have been even more impressive, if we had actually seen e.g. a random citizen or maybe one of Azura’s fellow gardeners just drop dead on the spot. As for Azura herself, she won’t be executed. Instead, she’ll be hooded, hooked up to a feeding tube and chained up in a dungeon and then Day will throw away the key.

Day’s punishment of Azura echoes Dusk’s (back when he was still Day) punishment of the Anacreons and Thespins after the attack on the Sky Bridge back in episode 2. Because just like his hated predecessor, this Day kills a shitload of innocent people but leaves the one person who’s actually guilty (though we still don’t know, if the Anacreons and Thespins are really responsible for the attack on the Sky Bridge) alive to contemplate their guilt. This shows that no matter how much they try to distinguish themselves from the clones, the Cleons are still the same person and it’s not a very nice person. Of all the emperors they could have cloned, they picked probably the most awful one.

After dealing with Azura, Day goes to see Dawn who’s being held under guard and in handcuffs in his quarters. Day sends the guards out and releases the handcuffs and proceeds to yell at poor Dawn, who may not be the sharpest Cleon in the drawer, but who’s still a victim in all this. Dawn confesses that he always suspected he was different and that he used to watch footage of Day in order to copy him better. Dawn also tells Day that he so much wishes Day were his father (that’s two Cleons then), but also that their lives – cooped up in the palace, no family except their clone siblings and no intimacy except with harem girls who will have their memories erased afterwards – are pretty shitty. “Did you never want to get out of the palace?” Dawn yells at Day. Of course, Day did want to get out, that’s why he travelled to the Maiden, after all. Dawn also cries that “We’re not even real people”, which strikes a sore spot in Day, who still wonders whether Zephyr Halima was right after all and the Cleons don’t have a soul.

Now I actually like the Cleon clone plot and their dysfunctional family a lot, even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with the books, and it is often more compelling than the actual Terminus plot, as Paul Levinson points out in his review. However, the constant harping on whether the Cleons are or are not human annoys me. Maybe I’ve read too much Lois McMaster Bujold, but to me there is no question that clones are human. Of course, they’re human – how they were created and conceived doesn’t matter. As for whether clones have a soul, I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a soul that exists separately from the body and the brain, therefore every conscious and intelligent being has a soul, including the Cleons, Demerzel and even Hari’s hologram.

However, the debate whether the Cleons are human is not just a philosophical debate I find irrelevant (of course, they are human, which doesn’t mean they’re good people), but one I find hugely problematic and actively harmful.  Because there are people out there like the German writer Sibylle Lewitscharoff who genuinely believe that people conceived via artificial insemination or surrogate pregnancies are not really human either (which would make e.g. Salvor not human, if applied to Foundation). And whenever group is considered “not really human” by a sufficient number of people, bad things happen as history has amply told us. Thankfully, Sibylle Lewitscharoff got pushback for her idiotic remarks, but she’s not the only one who believes that sort of thing. I remember watching a dytopian SF film on German TV sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s – i.e. around the time that I first read the Foundation books – where a teenaged boy finds that he doesn’t have emotions and later learns that he was conceived by artificial insemination and that he therefore isn’t a real human being, whereupon he kills himself. I no longer remember the title of that movie and Google is no help either. But my reaction to that movie was very much my reaction to the “Are the Cleons human?” debate in Foundation, namely “Of course, they’re human, so why are we even having this debate?” There are hundred thousands of people out there who were conceived by artificial insemination and/or via sperm or egg donation and/or born via surrogate pregnancies. We can argue whether these practices are moral or right (and personally, I think surrogate pregnancies are a horrible abuse of women’s bodies and should be banned, though I have no issue with artificial insemination or sperm and egg donations), but the people who result from these practices are no less human and do not deserve to have their humanity called into question. Just stop with this crap.

When we next see Brother Dawn,  Demerzel picks him up and leads him through the corridor with faces of all the past Cleons turning to look at you to face his judgment and likely execution at the hand of his brothers. Dusk, who’s always been a bastard, just wants the embarassment that is Dawn gone and incinerated. Day, however, wants to keep Dawn, even if he’s imperfect. And because “I love this kid and I don’t give a fuck if he’s lefthanded and has red/green blindness” isn’t really an argument that will convince Dusk of all people (since Dusk loves no one), Day invokes Hari Seldon and that Seldon said that the genetic dynasty has become stale and will hasten the fall of the Empire, unless they change. And here is change, delivered right onto their doorstep right in the form of Dawn. This is not the first time Day has invoked Seldon and it makes sense for him to do so, because Day was there as a little kid when Hari Seldon made his pronouncements and literally minutes afterwards the Sky Bridge collapsed. To Day, Hari Seldon is a powerful and dangerous magician.

Dusk, however, won’t have any of this. He and Day come to blows, having a fist fight in the throne room (which must be like punching yourself in the face). Dawn is scared and begins to cry – he’s still very much a kid after all – and hugs Demerzel. And Demerzel strokes and soothes him and tells him everything will be all right – before breaking his neck. “I serve the genetic dynasty above all”, she informs the horrified Day and Dusk.

Yes, Daneel/Demerzel has flat out ignored the First Law of Robotics and committed a murder for the second time in three episodes. And while the murder of Zephyr Halima might just be explained away via the Zeroth Law, since Zephyr Halima was destabilising the Empire, hastening the fall and also a representative of a harmful religion that kills some fifty percent of its followers via terrible pilgrimages (something the show never ever questions) and the galaxy is probably better off without her, Brother Dawn was a harmless kid who never hurt anybody.  True, Demerzel is very upset by what she’s done, so upset that she retreats to her private quarters and rips off her face to reveal a Terminator-like metal skull underneath. Nonetheless, robots who repeatedly ignore the Three Laws of Robotics in what is supposed to be an Asimov adaptation annoy me more than any other departure from the books.  Because the Three Laws of Robotics are so very central to Asimov’s work, as central as or even more so than psychohistory. And though Hari explains psychohistory correctly in the first episode, the show chooses to ignore that and instead focusses on super-special chosen ones like Salvor or Gaal.

Day is utterly devastated as he carries Dawn into the incineration chamber. Dusk seems to be his usual bastard self – “I want a new one decanted and up to speed by morning”, he order – but even he is not unaffected and smashes his palette into the mural he’s been working on.

Worse, the murder of Dawn was utterly unnecessary, because Dawn isn’t the only imperfect Cleon clones. For Shadowmaster Obreht informs Day that the conspirators didn’t just mess with Dawn’s DNA, they corrupted the source, i.e. the body of Cleon I itself. Nor was Dawn the only Cleon affected. Day’s DNA is altered as well and most likely’s Dusk’s too.

This is a devastating blow to the genetic dynasty, though I still have to wonder why they don’t have multiple copies of something as important as the original Cleon DNA they use to clone the Emperors. And if all else fails, there’s still the rebels’ Cleon clone whose body should have the correct DNA. Finally, if the nanites in the Emperors’ bloodstream can alter their DNA, shoulodn’t they also be able to fix it? After all, we’re much closer to having gene therapy and gene editing (we already have it to a certain degree) than to having cloning.

And that’s it for season 1 of Foundation. The show wasn’t the complete disaster I feared it would be and it actually was pretty good as a generic space opera show. However, it also wasn’t the Foundation I wanted to see, the Foundation I’ve wanted to see for more than thirty years now. I don’t care of Salvor Hardin changes race and sex (and the books neve specify Salvor’s race anyway), but it would be nice if they were still at least vaguely the same person. Just as it would be nice to get some more of what makes Foundation Foundation, namely the Foundation winning not by violence and having bigger guns than the other guys, but by outsmarting their opponents time and again. Cause that aspect is almost entirely absent in the series, replaced by explosion, chases and soap opera antics.

Finally, I want to point you to this article by Zachary D. Carter in The Atlantic. I initially scoffed about the headline – “Foundation has an Imperialism problem” – because duh, of course it does, which anybody whose actually read the books should know. However, the actual article is much better than the headline suggests, because Zachary D. Carter has not only read the books – a few years after I read them – he’s also a fan and has been greatly influenced by them and even studied economics because of Foundation. I always find this interesting, since Hari Seldon is never called an economist in the books nor a mathematician, he’s referred to as a social scientist or sociologist. So while Zachary D. Carter and Paul Krugman were inspired to study economics by Foundation, I was inspired to study sociology as a secondary subject. I’ve never regretted that either, even if I now know that psychohistory is nonsense, sorry.

In short, Zachary D. Carter is one of the people the show was made for and his criticisms mirror mine in many ways, namely that the show has lost too much of what made Foundation Foundation. Carter explicitly criticises that the show turned Salvor Hardin, who was a shrewd and pacifist manipulator in the books, into an action hero. He also takes issue with the fact that Gaal’s planet of the Luddites seems to be populated exclusively by people of colour, which is flat out offensive, even though it wasn’t intended that way.

Carter also explains how much Foundation is rooted in the WWII and immediate postwar era when the stories were written and how they reflect the US’ rise to superpower and how the US used strategic alliances, trade and yes, religion, to bring other countries into their sphere of influence. This is something that I never noticed when I originally read those stories in the late 1980s/early 1990s – probably because at the time history literally stopped in 1945 and nothing that came after was ever covered in history lessons. However, the parallels to the US’ rise to superpower became only all too clear to me when I reread the stories for the Retro Hugos.

For me – and I think for Zachary Carter – the core of Foundation is the triumph of brains over brawn and how the Foundation usually wins without firing a single shot. Plus, the Foundation stands for progress and technology and for wanting to make the world and the universe a better place. We can argue about their methods and whether they achieve that, but their goals are laudable. Foundation is what taught me how economic boycots work, whereas the teacher who attempted to explain to us why eating grapes from South Africa was suddenly a very bad thing in the 1980s, whereas no one had given a damn about the fact that aprtheid era South Africa was racist as fuck only a few years before, failed (and I’m pretty sure those unseasonal grapes weren’t even from South Africa, but from Chile or somewhere else).

There is a reason the Foundation books are so beloved and have inspired countless people, some of whom went on to do important things. Because the overall story – though it lacks a lot of elements that stories traditionally need such as action or characters that are more than cardboard – is incredibly compelling. And it still could be as compelling today as it was in the late 1980s, when I first read the books, or in the 1940s, when they were written. I have no issues with updating the story for a modern audience, with adding more women and people of colour (though I don’t recall being at all bothered by the nigh complete lack of women in the first book), with adding in action scenes and space battles and sex scenes, as long as the core story – brain wins over brawn and doesn’t even need to fire a shot, there are no chosen ones and Hari Seldon is always right, except when he isn’t – remains intact. And yes, it should be possible to tell that story and still appeal to the folks who watched Game of Thrones for the sex scenes and soap opera aspects.

And while the first season did manage to pull itself together at the end, I’m not sure if the core story still is intact. First seasons are often rough – think Star Trek Discovery – but the whole “super-special chosen one” stuff just doesn’t fit Foundation nor does the very earnest view of religion rather than the extremely cynical view of the original stories (which I loved, just having had multiple run-ins with religious hypocrites which eventually caused me to leave the Lutheran church behind). And don’t even get me started on Daneel/Demerzel flat out ignoring the Three Laws.

So in short, season 1 of Foundation was not bad at all and extremely pretty to look at, though for me it didn’t quite capture the spirit of the books. Will I be watching season 2? Probably, though I suspect we’ll have to wait a while for it to come out.

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1 Response to Foundation takes “The Leap” and ends its first season

  1. Pingback: A handy guide to all SFF-related posts and works of 2021 | Cora Buhlert

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