It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


A science fiction story – with flying boats!

A week or so ago I set myself a challenge: to write a science fiction story in which a flying boat featured prominently. I was hoping to come up with some heartland sf story, something with spaceships and aliens and such. And flying boats, of course. But I couldn’t think of a plot in which a flying boat, especially a historical one, might plausibly appear in the distant future or on another planet.

I could have just invented some futuristic flying boat, but I was determined it’d be a known type – and I had in mind one of those flying boats from the 1930s which carried passengers to Australia or across the Atlantic. So I dreamt up and considered a number of ideas, and promptly discarded them… and then realised there was only one way I could justifiably have a Short Empire flying boat, for example, in a sf story. But I didn’t really want to write alternate history. I wanted something more sfnal than that.

And I think I’ve sort of done it.

It’s a somewhat experimental story – in both structure and the fact that the plot is only implied. I shouldn’t think it’s the first story, science fiction or mainstream, to ever be written in this fashion, but it’s the first time I’ve tried it. It was fun to research, and I had fun “writing” it. I hope it proves as much fun to read.

Here it is (PDF): Disambiguation



The ethical writer

There was a bit of fuss caused last week by a nitwit post claiming that epic fantasy has degenerated since the days of Robert E Howard and Tolkien (I shall not dignify the post with a link to it). Nihilism and Decadence in populist escapist literature. Oh no! We must be in the End Times! I’ll not bother responding to the article – smarter folk than I have already done that. And done a much better job. But the subject has provoked an interesting line of thought…

There are those who say a writer’s only obligation is to be entertaining. Nothing else matters, providing the text entertains the reader. The aforementioned fantasy fuss would have you believe a writer is also obliged to be morally uplifting – or rather, to reinforce a narrowly-defined moral framework belonging to the writer of the post which started off the whole thing. Which is patently bollocks. In so many ways.

Writers do indeed have obligations above and beyond making their texts entertaining. They have an obligation to get it right.

Shoddy – or indeed a total lack of – research is inexcusable, and tantamount to artistic cowardice. This could mean, in science fiction, getting the science right, for example – something media sf is notoriously bad at doing. But it’s more a repudiation of the myth that you can “make it up as you go along”. Once, perhaps; once, when genre readers were unsophisticated. Not any more. And certainly not now that we have the Internet. Anything in a story that doesn’t seem quite right, you can look it up. You can do the research the writer should have done. And then you can decide not to read anything else written by that person ever again.

Fictionalising real-world examples is no defence. Want to make your fantasyland stand out? Why not look to the caliphates for inspiration? Yes, why not misrepresent and misinterpret someone else’s history and culture just to give your novel a little colour? Those people are unlikely to read your story, so why should you care if they get upset? And anyway, it’s all “made-up”… Except it’s not. Not if its inspiration is so obvious any reader can spot the parallels. In such cases, writers have an obligation to originality in their world-building. And a concomitant obligation to be accurate when the inspirations lie close to the surface.

There are those who claim it is immoral to use real people in fiction – public people, that is, dead or alive; not people the author actually might know. It is, they claim, an “invasion of privacy”. Except, public people rely on a public persona, it is their source of revenue, it is what they “do”. And as such it could be said it no longer belongs to them. If a writer were to use such a person in their text, then they are obliged to make their portrait, when necessary, as accurate as possible. The right places at the right time (providing the point of the story is exactly not that, of course).

Writers are certainly under no obligation to reinforce the prejudices of their readers. In fact, it is the reverse: they should challenge their readers’ prejudices. A good book should make you think about the world around you. It should not make you feel more comfortable with your attitudes; it does not exist to provide a helping hand carrying your personal baggage.

So, all that about a lack of conservatism in current epic fantasy, about these heirs to Tolkien who are spitting on JRR’s grave… It seems these degenerate, nihilistic writers are meeting their obligations: they’re challenging the worldview of the writer of the original post. He may not have responded intelligently, but that’s not their fault. Is it?


Women in sf reading challenge #2: Winterstrike, Liz Williams

Liz Williams is one of those British sf writers who was first published in the US. Her debut novel, The Ghost Sister, was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award in 2001, but has never received a UK edition. It wasn’t until her second novel, Empire of Bones, that she had a novel published in the UK. And yet, despite writing more than a novel a year since then, and even being shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2006 for Banner of Souls, she’s not a writer who seems to have impinged much on my map of the genre. I’m not entirely sure why. As far as I could tell, her science fiction was of a variety that would appeal to me. Yet I never bought or read one of her books. Perhaps it was because she seemed focused on her Detective Inspector Chen series of Chinese fantasy novels, which don’t interest me in the slightest.

Whatever the reason, it’s a lack I’ve now rectified. Winterstrike is the first book in a planned trilogy. It was first published in 2008, although no sequels have yet to appear. It is set on a far-future Mars which bears very little resemblance to the Mars of science fact. Parts of the story take place on Earth, which is also greatly changed.

There’s a lot of praise for Winterstrike and Liz Williams reproduced on the covers of the paperback edition I read. So it would not have been unrealistic to have high expectations of the book. Perhaps they were too high. While I enjoyed Winterstrike, and thought parts of it very good, it left me overall feeling a little underwhelmed. It may well be that the misleading back-cover blurb didn’t help. It claims the novel is about Hestia Mar who has been sent to Caud, an enemy city-state, “to recover details of an ancient weapon”. Which she finds and passes to her home city of Winterstrike, an act which “has virtually guaranteed the use of the weapon”. Her cousin Essegui, meanwhile, “discovers a plot by creatures who hold the secrets of the Martian past, and its future”. Which all sounds very exciting and science-fictional, but is no real preparation for what the story actually describes.

Hestia is indeed a spy for Winterstrike, looking for data on an ancient weapon in Caud. But when she finds it and passes the data back to her handler, the effects of the weapon’s use are not described until near the end of the novel; and even then it’s peripheral to the main plot. Hestia’s story meanwhile goes off on an entirely different path: while returning to Winterstrike from Caud, she finds herself in the ghostly city of the Noumenon, and stumbles across the army of Mantis, a clone of an ancient despot. Essegui, on the other hand, is searching for her sister, Shorn, who has escaped after being imprisoned in her room for consorting with a man-remnant. But Shorn is not really Eseegui’s sister, nor in fact is she really human. Also important is Earth’s Centipede Queen, who has come to Mars to find Shorn, for reasons not fully disclosed, but which result in Hestia travelling to Earth to tell them their queen has gone missing…

The two main narratives of Winterstrike, Hestia’s and Essegui’s, frequently come close to touching but never quite meet. But they do overlap, often taking place in the same parts of Mars. Such a carefully-braided plot is not especially unusual, but the voices of the two characters are so similar it is sometimes hard to distinguish between them. It’s only when Hestia reaches Earth that the locales differentiate the two threads sufficiently to keep them separate in the mind of the reader. Even then, the novel never quite reveals what’s going on. When Shorn is revealed as a bio-engineered experiment, it comes as a surprise because there’d been no foreshadowing in her character, nor had the existence of the technology to do it been mentioned earlier. Admittedly, this does remain true to the points of view of the narrators, but the revelation still feels abrupt.

As indeed do many of the book’s other revelations. It’s difficult to sense the shape of the story because Hestia and Essegui are in thrall to forces they don’t understand, and their narratives do not allow for an omniscient viewpoint to give the reader greater knowledge. This is not as claustrophobic as it might suggest, but it does mean much of the story has to be read on faith.

Throughout Winterstrike, Williams uses an invented vocabulary to describe many elements of the world,  her word-choices often giving the novel a flavour similar to Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun. Unlike Wolfe, Williams has not used real obsolete or antique terms. For example, the Changed, the bio-engineered races of humanity on Mars and Earth, include vulpen, kappa and demothea. I googled the last word, wondering if it had any mythological meaning… and discovered that  it’s apparently a boy’s name from the Wild West and means “one who talks while walking”. Which, I suspect, was not the intended meaning in Winterstrike. None of Williams’ invented terms are glossed, or entirely clear from context; and it often takes a while for their precise meaning to come clear.

I wanted to like Winterstrike more than I did. The Mars Williams has created is bizarre and fascinating, but, while described as a matriarchy, there didn’t seem much that was, well, especially female about it. In fact, for much of the story, Mars might well have been an alien world and its inhabitants entirely unrelated to humanity. I’d like to read the next two books in the trilogy, but I shall not be waiting with bated breath for them. This is not to say Winterstrike is a bad book, just that I didn’t take to it as much as I had expected. But I may very well try Williams’ other sf novels should I come across them.


A mantlepiece full of goodies

It’s time I publicly admitted I have a problem: “my name is Ian Sales and I buy lots of books”. See, here’s the proof. Yup, it’s book haul time again. And here’s what has arrived at the domicile since my last book haul post. A mixed bag, as you can see. Now all I need to do is find the time to actually read them…

First up, a few for the Space Books collection. Spacesuits is about, well, spacesuits. I reviewed it here. The Apollo Guidance Computer is about… go on, have a guess. I saw Frank O’Brien’s talk on the subject at Satellite 2 in Glasgow in 2008, and it was fascinating. Sizing Up the Universe is full of amazing photographs of stellar objects, and Voices from the Moon is full of amazing photographs from the Apollo programme: a pair of excellent coffee-table books.

Night Shade Books had their annual sale a couple of weeks ago – at which I bought these four. I’m looking forward to reading them. One day.

Some critical works. I already have Wolfe’s earlier collection of reviews, Soundings, so I know what to expect from Bearings. Evaporating Genres also promises to be fascinating. I’ve had a quick look through Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels and I suspect I disagree with around eighty-five of his choices. Oh well. Bearings and Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels were both bought from Brian Ameringen at Porcupine Books, an excellent book-seller.

I’m not old enough to remember Dan Dare when he first appeared – my first exposure to him was a reprint annual containing ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ and ‘Safari in Space’, published by Fleetway in 1973. Then it was the 2000AD take on the character (and when are they going to publish an omnibus edition of that, eh?). But I’m definitely a fan of Hampson’s original Dare, and own all the Hawk omnibus collections – and even a copy of PS Art’s lovely Tomorrow Revisited. Bernard Spencer is one of my favourite poets; this Collected Poems is from 1965.

Three second-hand books. Space in the Sixties by Patrick Moore is for the Space Books collection. Jed Mercurio is an author I can’t recommend highly enough. His Ascent is excellent, and I recently read American Adulterer and thought that very, very good too. Bodies is his debut novel, and I’m looking forward to reading it. The Quantum Thief is, of course, the sf debut of 2010, and my thanks to Michaela Staton for passing on her ARC of it for me to read.

These are the Harper Perennial editions from the late 1990s of Ursula K Le Guin’s short story collections. Although not all of her published short story collections, just some of them – I’ve no idea why they chose only those titles and not the others. I’ve been buying these over the years as I find them, and I recently managed to find a copy of A Fisherman of the Inland Sea to complete the set.


It’s not rocket science

Perhaps television science fiction is too easy a target. Perhaps the demands of television drama are incompatible with the demands of good science fiction. Good prime-time television drama, that is: a television series that doesn’t want to appeal solely to fans of television science fiction.

I am, of course, speaking of Outcasts, BBC1′s new science fiction drama. It’s currently being shown at prime-time on Monday and Tuesday nights, but in March will be moved to late night Sunday. I have so far watched the first four episodes, and I can’t decide which is worst: the plotting, or the world-building.

To be fair, the programme looks good and is mostly well-acted. And those television series which have clearly spent a lot of time and effort on world-building have ended up with (relatively) small but loyal fanbases among media sf fans – Battlestar Galactica, for example; or Firefly. But perhaps such an investment was thought too much for an eight-episode drama aimed at general television viewers, and which just happened to be science fiction.

But, you know, the world-building is important. It’s one of the pillars holding up suspension of disbelief. And without suspension of disbelief, you have a television drama that’ll shed viewers and end up being moved to a graveyard slot. You don’t need to create an entire world’s worth of back-history, you don’t need to invent new swearwords. But you do need to apply a little common sense to the world you’ve created for the story. No giant starships, for example, which are plainly not built to make planetary landings, but do anyway – despite previous attempts by other giant starships often proving catastrophic. Or re-introducing slavery, which is morally abhorrent no matter how you try to justify it, and simply wouldn’t happen in a story set no more than handful of decades from now. Or possessing sophisticated technology, but ignoring the way it is used in the real world – for communications, for instance; or GPS.

Granted, these may be considerations which are only going to exercise the minds of science fiction fans; perhaps general viewers, unused to, or unconcerned with, the demands of genre television, will ignore them. A lack of them won’t spoil their viewing experience. But is that any reason not to take the trouble to get it right? Their inclusion can only improve the story, and they’re unlikely to turn off non-sf viewers. There’s no need to turn Outcasts into Battlestar Galactica, with an entire universe invented from scratch, but throwing in a little rigour will surely make the programme better viewing for all.

Because when you skimp on the world-building, the plot stops making sense. Since many of those dramatically-tense scenes wouldn’t exist if you’d used a bit of common sense. So, for example, you have lots of sophisticated comms gear on your colony world, but people go off into the outback without any means of being contacted, so no one knows when they encounter trouble. It’s dramatic; but it’s also pretty dumb. And when you abandon common sense in world-building, you end up with idiot-plotting, a story that can only progress if the characters make pretty dumb decisions.

Battlestar Galactica proved that science fiction television can tackle grown-up themes in a grown-up fashion. It doesn’t always have to be juvenile. Outcasts could have demonstrated that rigorous intelligent science fiction doesn’t only appeal to fans of media sf. Instead, it seems Outcasts‘ writers ran from that particular fight. A shame.


Not a failure of the imagination

I love research. I take a nerdish delight in it. When I’m writing, I want everything in my story to be right. If that means digging through books, or searching the Internet, to find the information I need, then I’m more than willing to do so. I should be writing, of course. Except I can’t write if I don’t know what I need to know, if I can’t make sure it’s absolutely spot-on.

I don’t think I’m capable of writing a story in which I can “make it up as I go along”. I have come to accept that. The nearest I managed, ‘Killing the Dead’ in Postscripts 20/21 Edison’s Frankenstein, was set on an entirely invented generation starship. But I couldn’t let it go there. I had to pick a real destination for the ship, and calculate the length of time the journey would take. But even that didn’t do the trick. So I structured the story according to Dante’s Inferno, and borrowed imagery from it; which gave me a topic to spend hours happily researching.

I have in the past bought a copy of a long-out-of-print and scarce book – see here – so I could read up on something that appeared in a story I was writing. My story ‘Barker’ (see here) required a lot of research into the history and personalities of the early decades of the Space Race. Because everyone in the story except the title character was a real historical person. Fortunately the subject fascinates me and I already own a large number of books on it. See my Space Books blog. And yes, the flash fiction I posted there, ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’, also required a great deal of research too.

The story I’m currently working on – ironically, a fantasy – has had me researching Supermarine Spitfires and Vickers Wellington bombers. The protagonist is a RAF pilot during World War II, and I wanted to make sure I had all the details of flying those aircraft correct. I could have finessed it, I suppose – a few general piloting terms, perhaps, and then on with the story. But that would be cheating. It wouldn’t convince me.

And, without that research, how else would I have learnt that the the first item in the Vickers Wellington Pilot’s Notes Check list before landing is “Auto-pilot.. .. .. cock–OUT”? I kid you not. See page 25 here.

Another story, as yet unpublished, has one section featuring an Alvis Scorpion Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked), so I hunted around until I found a copy of a book about the vehicle. Because I needed to get the terminology right.

Amanda Rutter of Floor to Ceiling Books asked on Twitter today “What book do you wish you had written?” She gave The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle, for its “simply gorgeous prose”, as her answer. I could have named something by Lawrence Durrell, whose prose I certainly admire the most. Or perhaps a science fiction novel that blew me away when I first read it. Or something by one of the my favourite sf writers. Instead, I picked Ascent by Jed Mercurio, because his intense and immediate, and closely-researched, style is how I’d like to write myself.

As a reader I want to know what it’s like, what it feels like, to be there. I want details. I am, after all, reading these books to explore other places, people and times – real or invented. And the last thing I want is glib one-line descriptions, or the distracting blur of authorial hand-waving. I feel novels should have bibliographies – and many novels do include a page of “Further Reading”. I have a work-in-progress which currently has twenty-five titles in its bibliography. It has, I admit, taken a long time to write. I hope it’ll be worth the effort.

I’ve wittered on about this subject before, but that’s because it’s something dear to me. True, fiction is not non-fiction. Nor should it try to be. But neither is it a failure of the imagination to research something heavily before writing about it.


I write science fiction, me

I don’t write speculative fiction, I don’t write fantastic fiction. I write science fiction. Occasionally, I write fantasy. I use the so-called “marketing categories” because I expect my readers to understand what I am trying to do in my short stories, and readers that will understand are more likely to read fiction labelled as “science fiction” (or “fantasy”). They have an expectation of a certain mode of fiction when they see the label; and I have an expectation that my readers will appreciate what I am trying to achieve.

Which is not to say that science fiction is opaque to non-genre readers; nor should it be. But my primary audience is pretty much those readers who like the same sort of stuff I do. And I like science fiction. I like science fiction with rigour, deep characterisation and good prose – and just because common wisdom has it the genre is incapable of those, that does not mean it needs to be relabelled with some new and entirely arbitrary term. Because all fiction, of whatever mode or genre, is essentially “speculative”. It’s only in the nature of the speculation that differences obtain. “What if?” can be asked in many diverse ways; and there are probably more answers to each variant than there are indeed variants.

The label “science fiction” is just as much a part of the compact between writer and reader as the author’s name, the blurb, even the cover-art. Science fiction as a label may have received more than its fair share of abuse in the decades since 1926, but it remains a fairly well-understood term. To replace it with something even more nebulous, something which seems to want to disinherit the genre’s history, is neither helpful nor useful.

I want to see an end to science fiction’s bad press. This will not happen by side-stepping the criticism through renaming the genre. It will happen when it is commonly acknowledged that science fiction, like all modes of fiction, encompasses both populist escapist tales and complex literary stories. Perhaps then I will not need to label my stories as science fiction. Perhaps then labels will be irrelevant. Nor do I need literary authors slumming in the genre to improve it – whether they acknowledge that they are writing sf or not. I need only write the best science fiction I can write.

And that is exactly what I do.


British sf masterwork: A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper

Between 1954 and 1980, Edmund Cooper published thirty novels and collections. None of his books remain in print, none have been considered for Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says of him, Edmund Cooper “died with his reputation at a low ebb; but he was a competent and prolific writer”, which is hardly fulsome praise. In the decades since his death in 1982, Cooper has been almost forgotten. Secondhand copies of his novels are not hard to find, although it seems nothing of his was ever reprinted after 1980. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he wasn’t published much in the US (during the 1960s and 1970s, DAW had lots of UK sf writers on its list). Of Cooper’s novels, the one which is perhaps mentioned most often approvingly is A Far Sunset. This was first published in 1967, but stayed in print throughout the 1970s.

In 2032 AD, the Americans, Russians, and “United States of Europe” each built an interstellar spacecraft. The American ship was the biggest, the Russian the fastest, and the European the cheapest. This last was named the Gloria Mundi, and her destination was Altair. After twenty years of travel, spent chiefly in hibernation, the crew of twelve arrived in the Altair system… and discovered an inhabitable and inhabited world. They landed. Six went out to explore, but never returned. Three went looking for them, and also disappeared. The remaining trio had no choice but to follow… and were promptly captured by the humanoid Bayani. Only one of the three survived captivity, Paul Marlowe, the ship’s psychiatrist. As Poul Mer Lo, he went native.

The Bayani are described throughout A Far Sunset as possessing a “mediaeval” society, but it seems much more ancient than that. From the description of Baya Nor, the Bayani city, Angkor Wat was plainly an inspiration. As was early Polynesia. The Bayani are ruled by a god-king, always called Enka Ne, who rules with absolute power for one year. He is then sacrificed, and a new Enka Ne is chosen.

The current Enka Ne is intrigued by Marlowe, and visits him in disguise as Shah Shan. He asks to learn English, and Marlowe is astonished by Shah Shan’s fierce intelligence and the speed with which he learns what Marlowe has to teach. Emboldened by this, Marlowe tries to introduce the wheel to the Bayani. The priestly order are immediately against it, but only accept it reluctantly after Enka Ne kills over a hundred of them. Change, then, is not going to be easy. And the current Enka Ne’s reign is not long.

Sure enough, after a new Enka Ne becomes god-king, the school Marlowe has set up is destroyed. Determined not to give in, Marlowe decides to travel a distant mountain which may hold the secret to the Bayani’s origin. This he does, and, yes, he does find the secret of the Bayani. But it’s not enough to effect change.

But on Marlowe’s return to Baya Nor, he learns that Enka Ne has died. And the Bayani oracle has chosen Marlowe to be the new god-king…

Cooper evokes his invented world with skill, and Marlowe is a well-drawn character. A Far Sunset has not aged gracefully, but neither is it as embarrassing as many other books of its time. Some of the science and technology feels a bit 1960s, and the gender politics are definitely from that decade; but the Bayani and Baya Nor are mostly timeless. The writing throughout is solid, and occasionally good without being flashy. While the secret of the Bayani is not obvious – so the reveal does come as a surprise – the existence of a secret is perhaps introduced too late in the story to have much dramatic impact.

Having said all that, there’s not much in A Far Sunset that is actually science fiction. It could be the story of a European explorer cast adrift on a Pacific island whose inhabitants who have lived the same way for centuries. Even the secret behind the origin of the Bayani, and their god Oruri, doesn’t really need to be sf. And that makes A Far Sunset ultimately a disappointing read. It’s by no means a bad book. It’s well-written, with a well-drawn world and protagonist, but it could just have easily been a “European marooned in the South Seas” story. I suspect I shall have to find another novel by Cooper to take its place on my British SF Masterworks list.


Spotting the next big thing

There was a conversation this morning on Twitter about collecting and collectible authors. Lavie Tidhar has already given his thoughts on the subject here. I collect books by certain authors myself – just see my irregular book porn posts on this blog – but I collect those authors because I like and admire their prose. Any future value is an unlooked-for bonus. And given my taste in fiction, a not very frequent bonus…

Who knew back in 1991 that Stephen Baxter’s first novel, Raft, would one day be worth around £300? I was fortunate in that I was sent a free copy. And of his next two books, Timelike Infinity and Anti-Ice, which are also worth about £200 each.

Around the same time, I bought a first edition copy of Michael Blumlein’s first, and only, short story collection, The Brains of Rats, from Scream Press. (And it was harder in those days to buy books from US small presses.) That book is worth approximately the same now as it was twenty years ago.

Other authors whose books I collect, and own in first editions (often signed), are often worth little more than I paid for them. When it comes to choosing authors to invest in, I’m rubbish.

But then I tend to avoid popular authors – and it’s authors who have small print runs for their first few books, but then pick up a large following, whose books tend to be worth something. Authors that are hyped from the start could conceivably prove good buys – although such marketing campaigns usually involve huge print-runs of the book in question. Like Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Which isn’t very good, anyway.

For the true collectible author, you need someone whose first few books were recognised by the cognoscenti – a few approving reviews here and there – but didn’t make much of a splash. They need to be regularly published – Baxter has churned out one or two novels a year since Raft, while Blumlein has managed three novels in twenty-two years. As novelists grow in popularity, so people start to seek out those earlier disregarded works. And are willing to pay good money for them.

Paolo Bacigalupi – well, The Windup Girl caused too much of a splash, I think, and his abrupt jump to YA might have scuppered his chances. Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut may also have landed with too much noise. Though I’m not a fan of fantasy, NK Jemisin is a possibility; her first two books seem to be very popular.

Unfortunately, thanks to the success of some marketing campaigns I can’t think of other new authors whose books might prove collectible at a later date. Because, by definition, not much fuss was made about them. I’m trying to think of a few authors whose debuts were published in the past two years, garnered a few positive reviews, but didn’t otherwise set the blogosphere alight. Ian Whates, perhaps? Gareth L Powell? Chris Beckett? Aliette de Bodard? Two paperback originals, one small press, and one that’s actually a reprint of a small press edition. Perhaps that’s the problem, perhaps the blogosphere has changed things such that it’s a rare debut which can slip under the radar.

And now I’ve said that, no doubt people will think of lots of examples…


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