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Reading diary, #19

One more of these and that’ll see my entire 2015 reading documented. After I’ve posted that, I’ll do a summary “year in reading” post, you know, with pie charts and shit. I’ve already done my best of the year post (see here), even though the year had yet to finish then but everyone does it early so never mind. And I can always carry over any candidates I missed to next year’s best of, anyway…

seedlingstarsThe Seedling Stars, James Blish (1957). Back in the early 1980s, I was a big fan of Blish’s fiction – possibly because Arrow had repackaged them with Chris Foss covers – and bought and read a dozen or so. I still have them. But one I’d missed was The Seedling Stars, so I tracked down a copy on eBay a few years ago – with, of course, the Foss cover art – and stuck it on the TBR. I had a feeling I might have read it before – certainly, ‘Surface Tension’, the penultimate story in the collection wasn’t new to me, although I’m not sure where I’d previously read it. But the other two novellas and one short story didn’t ring any bells. All four are about “pantropy”, which is genetically engineering humanity for environments rather than terraforming worlds. In ‘Seeding Program’, Earth has sent an agent to infiltrate a colony on Ganymede created by the leader of the pantropy movement and whose inhabitants have all been engineered before birth to survive on the Jovian moon’s frozen surface. It’s not in the slightest bit convincing, and the plot could just have easily been translated to any random Earth location. In ‘The Thing in the Attic’, the theocratic society of the gibbon-like humans of Tellura is causing them to stagnate, but when one freethinker is exiled he and his companions trek over the mountains and discover a starship of humans who have come to see how the colony is doing. Solid nineteen-fifties science fiction, perhaps a little preachy in places, and not especially memorable. ‘Surface Tension’, however, is memorable. In this novella, tiny humans have been seeded in a series of ponds on the one small piece of land on a water world. Again, a freethinker (male, of course) persuades his fellows to build a special vehicle to explore the world “above the sky”. The sentient amoebas are a little hard to swallow (so to speak), but it’s a fun setting and Blish makes good use of it. The final story, ‘Watershed’, is very short and takes place on a starship heading for Earth. The crew are baseline humans and the passenger is an engineered human from another world. The crew are also hugely racist toward their passenger. Who points out that baseline humans are now the minority among the colonised worlds. I suspect I would have enjoyed this collection a whole lot more if I’d read it back in the early nineteen-eighties when I read all those other Blish books…

Slow_Bullets_by_Alastair_Reynolds_WSFA_CoverSlow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds (2015). I decided to hang on for the signed, numbered WSFA Press edition of this novella, rather than buy the original Tachyon Publications edition. And it’s a smart little hardback they’ve produced – except… they’ve got the ISBN wrong, and re-used one from one of their previous novellas. Argh. You would not believe how many things that screws up. The title of the novella refers to devices implanted in people which store their memories, allowing their actions during a vast war between worlds to be recorded. They’re called “slow bullets” because they’re implanted in the leg and then slowly work their way up to lodge in the chest. But the actual plot of Slow Bullets concerns Scur, who is captured and tortured by a war criminal from the other side, left for dead, but then wakes up aboard a transport carrying war criminals and other prisoners. Except something has gone wrong and it looks like everyone aboard had been left in hibernation for thousands of years… This is typical Reynolds – a universe which he perhaps might not have visited before but nonetheless feels like one of his, and a plot predicated on horrible violence which still manages to slingshot off an optimistic and redemptive ending. It is, in fact, pretty much about as Reynolds as you can get and, as a result, your mileage may vary. I enjoyed it, some bits more than others.

grass_kingThe Grass King’s Concubine, Kari Sperring (2012). I bought this after it was pointed out that I don’t read enough by fantasy by women writers by the author herself (it was a general admonishment on Twitter, not one personally directed at me, but I felt it was a fair comment). And I’m glad I did. I am not a huge fan of epic fantasies – I’ve read a fair number of them, and no longer find their tropes or stories interesting. Happily, The Grass King’s Concubine is nothing like an epic fantasy. Fantasy, yes; and a very cleverly done one. But not epic. And that’s meant as a compliment. Aude is the daughter of a rich land-owner, not old money but rich enough to be accepted into high society, but she is curious as to the source of her family’s wealth and determined not to marry and become just another trophy wife. After a couple of visits to the Brass City, the Dickensian industrial part of the city where she lives, she ends up running away with provincial officer Jehan. Aude’s search ends up with her being forcibly taken to the WorldBelow, ruled by the Grass King; and Jehan is taken there by a pair of ferrets who can take human form and act as guardians to the gate. Aude is a refreshingly forthright and active female protagonist, and there’s a welcome line of social commentary running throughout The Grass King’s Concubine. The fantasy elements are also interesting, original and well thought-out – Aude’s explorations of the Grass King’s palace are particularly well-drawn. If I had to recommend a modern fantasy novel I’d be more than happy to recommend this one. Go and get yourself a copy.

teleportation_accidentThe Teleportation Accident, Ned Beauman (2012). Having read this, I now understand why Lavie Tidhar is such a fan of the book. It addresses some of his favourite subjects. Myself… I enjoyed it, thought it amusing in parts and cleverly done overall, but I wasn’t taken with the engine which drives the plot. The title refers to a piece of stage machinery, first invented in the late eighteenth-century, which allows for the rapid, and apparently instantaneous, changing of scenery. In Weimar Berlin, Egon Loesser is trying to build a new version of that machine, but one that moves the cast around rather than the scenery. But during a test it goes wrong and dislocates both arms of the actor wearing it. Loesser is one of those horrible comic protagonists you find yourself inadvertently rooting for – he’s self-centred, fixated on his sex life (or lack thereof), and nasty to pretty much everyone he meets. It is Loesser’s lack of a girlfriend, and desire for the nubile Adele Hitler, which drives the plot, as Loesser chases her to Paris and then onto Los Angeles, at each place bumping into friends and acquaintances (some Jewish, some not) from Berlin. It all ends up with Loesser getting involved in a WWII project at a LA university to build an actual teleportation machine, which may or may not work and which may or may not have something to do with the strange murders which have been occurring on the campus. A fun read, even outright funny in places, although not particularly pleasant and often only saved by its cleverness.

critical_massCritical Mass, Sara Paretsky (2013). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s novels since reading Guardian Angel back in the early 1990s. I’d borrowed it from my mother, and liked it so much I made an effort to read more of the VI Warshawski series… and have done ever since. Earlier this year, my mother took me to see Sara Paretsky speak (with Val McDiarmid) at the Harrogate Crime Festival. The plot of Critical Mass is a little more convoluted than most Warshawski novels, but the villains of the piece are, as usual, the rich. Vic’s friend Lotte receives a panicked phone call from the junkie daughter of a friend from Lotte’s childhood back in Vienna just before the Anschluss. Vic investigates, but the bird has flown, and all that remains is a shot-up meth lab and a dead body (male) in a nearby field. It turns out the woman’s younger brother, who is a physics whiz and works as a software engineer at a big computing firm, has also gone missing. The CEO of the company, whose father invented ferromagnetic memory, is worried he has taken one of their secret projects to a rival firm, but the clues suggest to Vic he disappeared for other reasons. There are also flashbacks to Lotte’s childhood, focusing on a young Jewish woman who is a gifted physicist but finds it hard to be taken seriously and eventually ends up as slave labour on one of the Nazis’ atom bomb projects. The story bounces around between two seemingly unrelated crimes before the two eventually, and cleverly, interlock. The only sour note is a pair of DHS agents who behave like mindless thugs rather than professional federal agents and a CEO who thinks it’s worth murdering people to safeguard the reputation of his company. But otherwise, this is a good Warshawki and worth reading – and it also sheds light on a little-known aspect of early twentieth-science and World War Two.

anecdotesAnecdotes of Destiny, Karen Blixen (1958). After watching Out of Africa, I fancied reading something by Blixen, so when I spotted this collection in a charity shop, I bought it. And since I was spending Christmas in Denmark, I thought it appropriate to take it with me and read it there. Anecdotes of Destiny has apparently been republished under the title of the most famous story in it, as Babette’s Feast and Other Stories, which I’m glad I spotted now as it’d likely confuse me later if I stumbled across the latter book. As it is, the original title does the collection a disservice as its contents are far from “anecdotes”. True, the opening story story pastiches a tale from 1001 Nights, and my heart sank a little when I read it. But ‘Babette’s Feast’ is wholly different and a great deal better. Best in the collection, however, is ‘Tempests’, about a young woman in Norway who joins a travelling theatre and then saves a ship from foundering during a storm, and it quickly became a favourite novella – and would make an excellent film too. A very good collection, overall, and I plan to read more by Blixen.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 121


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Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, abebooks.com published a list of 50 Essential SF Novels, about which, of course, there is much to argue. This prompted a discussion on Twitter between Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch, James Smythe of The Explorer, and myself. We decided to each generate our own list of 50 essential sf novels, which we would post over two days – 25 books per day. Jared’s list is here and James’ list is here. The rules were simple: the definition of science fiction up to the individual, novels only (so no collections or anthologies), novellas allowed, graphic novels (or bandes dessinées) also allowed, only one book per author, and only books that you have yourself read.

It proved a harder exercise than I expected. I could have picked 50 of my favourite sf novels – but what made them “essential”? Instead, I chose novels across a mix of science fiction modes and subgenres. I also wanted a gender-balanced list, but unfortunately couldn’t manage it – only 16 of the 50 writers below are female. That one-book-per-author rule did no help at all. There are many women sf writers who probably belong on this list, but whose books I’ve not actually read – such as Octavia Butler, MJ Engh, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, CL Moore, Judith Merrill, Carol Emshwiller, Marge Piercy, Naomi Mitchison… I could only choose those I’d read.

But, the list. Here it is, the first twenty-five novels of fifty that every self-respecting sf fan should have on their bookshelves, given in order of original publication. The remaining twenty-five will appear tomorrow.

1 Frankenstein†, Mary Shelley (1818)
The original proto-sf novel and a bona fide classic of English literature. Of course it’s essential.

2 The Time Machine†, HG Wells (1895)
Another proto-sf novel. Time travel is a well-established subgenre, but which time travel novel is the most essential in a collection? I submit it is this one. Far too many time travel stories use the trope merely to improve matters for the protagonist. Well’s classic describes, and comments on, the time of its writing through the future history of humanity.

3 A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
Edgar Rice Burroughs has a lot to answer for – this planetary romance arguably fixed science fiction as a pulp genre, and it took a good forty or more years for sf to break free. A Princess of Mars is a silly book, with its Gary Sue hero and naked Martians, its magical science and its simplistic set-up… but it is also an essential stop on the road to modern science fiction.

4 Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1926)
One of the genre’s first novelisations – if not the actual first – as it was based on the 1924 screenplay of Lang’s film. It’s all a bit overwrought and florid, in direct contrast to the movie, but its message remains timeless.

5 Last And First Men†, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
It starts in the twentieth century and finishes two billion years later. It also throws away more idea for novels within its pages than any other book in the entire sf canon. Except perhaps Stapledon’s own Star Maker, which I’ve not read yet…

6 Nineteen Eighty-Four*, George Orwell (1948)
For some reason, totalitarian dystopias haven’t been especially common in genre sf – perhaps because this one did it so well; or perhaps because most sf writers and fans aren’t willing to engage with politics that don’t match their own… Where dystopias do appear in sf (they’re more common in literary fiction), they’re generally little more than background, a dim setting against which some noble-browed hero can shine.

7 The House That Stood Still, AE van Vogt (1950)
Like many early sf writers, van Vogt was hugely prolific. Also like them, most of his stories and books were not very good. In this one, van Vogt crashed together noir and pulp sf, and the result is something which stands above everything else he wrote (despite the occasional characteristic silliness). It’s essential because it’s emblematic of genre fiction of the period. If Philip Marlowe and Flash Gordon had a baby, it would look like this book.

8 The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
Planetary romance as a subgenre is hard to take seriously. We’ve put robots on the surface of Mars, we know there are no ancient civilisations, no canals, etc. But Brackett was an order of magnitude better than most writers working in this subgenre, and it shows. This is probably her most characteristic planetary romance.

9 The Stars My Destination†, Alfred Bester (1956)
Thinking about it, I don’t know why this book is “essential”, but I do know that any sf book collection without it feels incomplete. It is in many ways the distillation of 1950s sf, a crazy pulp re-imagining of The Count of Monte Cristo, which revels in its pyrotechnic prose.

10 Solaris*, Stanisław Lem (1961)
The Anglophone world is not, of course, the only one with a sf tradition. Many countries have strong sf traditions. Such as Poland – and Solaris is perhaps the best-known Polish sf novel by the Polish sf writer best-known outside Poland. It’s also an excellent film (but that was made by a Russian).

11 Dune*†, Frank Herbert (1965)
On a prose level, Dune is not especially good. It’s also unevenly structured. But its world-building is second to none, and it is the first truly immersive sf novel. All that praise for its ecological theme is just hogwash to disguise the fact that most males when they were teenagers wanted to be Paul Atreides.

12 A Torrent of Faces, James Blish & Norman L Knight (1967)
Overpopulation is a common theme in sf, and the first three-quarters of the twentieth century were awash with Malthusian nightmares. This one shows its age somewhat, but its prose is very nicely detailed and its story is well-balanced.

13 Camp Concentration, Thomas M Disch (1968)
People do things – mostly nasty – to other people, and sometimes sf writes about it. This is not the best-known sf novel about an experiment to increase the intelligence of a human being, but it is the best one.

14 The Fifth Head of Cerberus†, Gene Wolfe (1972)
You’d think that a genre of fiction with the word “science” in its name would be clever. But it isn’t always. Sometimes, however, it can be very clever. Like The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is a sort of cunning puzzle in fictive form.

15 Rendezvous With Rama*†, Arthur C Clarke (1972)
Some people think sf is all about Big Dumb Objects, and Clarke’s Rama is probably the most iconic BDO of them all. A mysterious alien vessel, seemingly dormant, enters the Solar System and then leaves it. This is sf as fiction of the ineffable. Ignore the inferior sequels.

16 Crash, JG Ballard (1973)
Good sf is about the real world, no matter when and where it is set. Or what happens in the story. Crash is avant garde, it is brutal, it can and will offend. But it also says something important about people’s relationship to technology.

17 The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe†, DG Compton (1973)
A quarter of the world’s CCTV cameras can be found in the UK. It is the most-surveillanced nation on the planet. And yet it’s not some horrible Stalinist totalitarian state – as sf insists would be the case. (Our current lords and masters seem to prefer Dickens as a model.) The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe shows the ultimate in paparazzi – a reporter who has had one eye secretly replaced with a television camera. His subject just wants to be allowed to die in peace. But it’s not going to happen. A sf novel that says something important, now more than ever.

18 The Dispossessed†, Ursula K LeGuin (1974)
Too much sf ignores politics, content to describe some simplistic system which meets the needs of either story or writer. Given the breadth of the genre and the size of its toolbox, it’s a shame sf doesn’t try more often for meaningful political commentary in its fictions. Happily, some writers have made a career of doing so, and LeGuin is among the best at this. As this novel demonstrates.

19 Dhalgren†, Samuel R Delany (1974)
There aren’t many sf novels which could legitimately make it onto a list of twentieth-century literary classics, but Dhalgren is one of them.

20 The Female Man*†, Joanna Russ (1975)
This is not just a book about women-only worlds, it is also an excellent explanation of why such worlds need to exist. Sf is far too useful a tool to be merely tales of action/adventure in outer space. This book demonstrates why, and does it in a way that cannot fail to affect readers.

21 Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975)
There are not that many sf novels in which humans never appear – possibly because it’s a difficult trick to pull off well. But Coney manages it in this beautifully-written coming of age story set on an alien world.

22 A Scanner Darkly†, Philip K Dick (1977)
One word: drugs. This is Dick’s best novel – perhaps not his druggiest, or funniest, or most paranoid; but certainly the one where all three elements work together most effectively. Happily, it doesn’t read like he made it up as he went along, even if he did. Which is more than can be said for the bulk of his oeuvre.

23 The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977)
Varley set three novels and a number of novellas and short stories in his Eight Worlds universe. In it, mysterious aliens have destroyed human civilisation on Earth, leaving only those on the other planets and moons of the Solar System to survive – as best they can. Happily, they have access to advanced technology beamed in blueprint form from Ophiuchi. A silly conspiracy plot provides the excuse for a travelogue through the Eight Worlds, before reaching an ending that actually throws away an entire novel’s worth of ideas. But this novel is an excellent example of sf’s penchant for optimism in the face of adversity.

24 Gateway†, Frederik Pohl (1977)
Another one of sf’s better-known Big Dumb Objects. The space station of the title is a mysterious depot for alien FTL starships, which humans use Russian roulette-fashion to fire themselves off into the rest of the galaxy, hoping to return with riches. It’s like the National Lottery, but with aliens off-stage somewhere (instead of hosting the prime-time game shows).

25 The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart (1979)
There has been a strong tradition in sf throughout its history of women-only utopias – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in 1915 through works by Francis Stevens, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sheri S Tepper, Nicola Griffith, and others. Sadly, it’s been marginalised by a readership who would sooner read about derring-do by manly men. The Wanderground is not entirely women-only – the men still live in the cities, and they’ve not changed their ways much – but the women-only settlements in the hills are something very much different. Perhaps there’s a bit too much magical powers about it all, but this novel possesses a great deal of charm.

The remaining twenty-five essential sf novels will be posted here tomorrow.

note: * means the book is also on abebooks.com’s list; † means the book is in the SF Masterworks series.


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One-liners

It’s been a while since I last noted here what books I’d read. Yes, I’ve given up on the readings & watchings posts, but I’d still like to record what literature I’ve consumed throughout the year. Here I shall attempt to do it in a single line per book (occasionally through the creative use of punctuation, I must admit).

A Torrent of Faces, James Blish (1967) Pleasingly detailed, somewhat dated, but a much more interesting sf novel than I’d expected.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson (2005) Oof – worse than I’d expected (though I’ve heard the translation was rushed), but Blomqvist is a Gary Stu and the attempts to drag in references to the original title (Män som hatar kvinnor, Men Who Hate Women) are hamfisted to say the least.

The Immersion Book of SF, Carmelo Rafala, ed. (2010) Small press anthology of, er, science fiction; some contents better than others, though nothing stands out especially.

The Ghost, Robert Harris (2007) Blair’s biographer is murdered so pro ghost writer is drafted in and discovers something rotten in the ex-PM’s career– oh wait, it’s not Blair, it’s a made-up politician…

Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks (2008) Faulks does Fleming and makes a pretty good fist of it – also: a Caspian Sea Monster!

Diadem from the Stars, Jo Clayton (1977) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961) Some astonishingly good novellas, some not so good short stories; planning to read more Lowry.

Islands, Marta Randall (1976) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

If the Dead Rise Not, Philip Kerr (2009) Bernie Gunther in Berlin after leaving the Kripo; and decades later in Cuba – and it’s all about corruption by US mobsters over building work for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Eastmodern, Herta Hurnaus (2007) Bratislava, home to some surprisingly interesting-looking Modernist buildings; as this book amply demonstrates.

The Omcri Matrix, Jay D Blakeney (1987) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Dulcima, HE Bates (1953) I read it but I’m not sure why it was written; apparently they made a film of it too…

The Maginot Line, Rob Redman, ed., (2012) Literary paperback anthology, contains some good stories, including one by a bloke called Sales.

Goldfinger, Ian Fleming (1959). A bit like the film, but with added homophobia and sexism! – Bond turns ice-cold lesbian Pussy Galore into a warm and loving heterosexual with a good rogering; plus a half-page homophobic rant by 007.

The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

Oscar Niemeyer Buildings, Alan Weintraub (2009) Does what it says on the cover: lovely photographs of lovely buildings.

Building Brasilia, Marcel Gautherot (2010) Yet more lovely Niemeyer buildings – they should let Neimeyer design the entire world.

Jerusalem Fire, RM Meluch (1985) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ (1980) April’s book for my reading challenge; I wrote about it here.

Girl, David Thomas (1995) Man goes into hospital but through implausible mix-up gets vaginoplasty; played for laughs, manages some sensitivity, but definitely from the male gaze so nothing learned.

The Maquisarde, Louise Marley (2002) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

Machine, Jennifer Pelland (2012) Read for review in Vector; interesting approach to the central conceit, though a little muddled in execution.

Disguise for a Dead Gentleman, Guy Compton (1964) Actually DG Compton: murder most foul at a public school; some nice-ish writing but a bit all over the place structurally.

Two Sides of the Moon, David Scott & Alexei Leonov (2004) Reviewed on A Space About Books About Space here.

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson (1972) Not a Moomin in sight, just grandma and granddaughter having fun and games among Finland’s islands; simple, elegiac.

Impact Parameter & Other Quantum Realities, Geoffrey A Landis (2001) Variable collection by Analog/Asimov’s stalwart; contains a couple of good ones, but a few are surprisingly poor given their initial publication venues.

Time Future, Maxine McArthur (1999) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Valerian 3: The Land Without Stars, Mézière & Christin (1972) English slowly catches up with famous French lightweight space opera bande dessinée series.

The Jagged Orbit, John Brunner (1969) Even in 1969, Brunner should have thought twice about this – a near-anarchic over-armed US with voluntary racial segregration; painfully, embarrassingly and datedly hip.

West Coast Blues, Jacques Tardi (2009) Bande dessinée about a man who goes on the run after being mistakenly targetted by hitman; astonishingly nihilistic.

In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield (2009) European history re-imagined with mermen, sort of; a slow start, drags even slower for the first third, then gets moving… and proved actually rather good.

The White Peacock, DH Lawrence (1911) His first novel: structurally weird and the viewpoint lacks rigour, but some lovely prose and it all feels very local to me; will definitely be reading more.

Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2012) Read for review in Vector – sequel to Isles of the Forsaken (see here), and not quite the expected story; some excellent bits nonetheless, though the plot feels a little problematical.

Starship Winter, Eric Brown (2012) Third in a quartet of seasonal novellas set on the world of Chalcedony; shenanigans at an art exhibition; the weakest of the three so far.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009, Alan Moore (2012) Third and last (?) in the Century series, which sees the League sort of re-unite to defeat a stoned Antichrist.

Aliens of the Heart, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2007) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch (1978) Published in 1978, from the characters’ ages would appear to be set in 1968, feels like it was set in 1958; Booker Prize winner, though felt far too long and flabby to me.

Starshadows, Pamela Sargent (1977) Collection of early short fiction with a patronising introduction by Terry Carr; will be reviewed on SF Mistressworks soon.

‘À Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ & Other Essays, DH Lawrence (1961) English literature’s one true Puritan wibbles on about masturbation (bad), the right sex (good), marriage (sacrosanct!) and obscenity (“moi?”) – he really was a dirty old reactionary…

Griffin’s Egg, Michael Swanwick (1990) Novella about, er, a group of astronauts stranded on the Moon after a nuclear war on Earth – not an inspiration, honest; nor anywhere as good as I’d vaguely remembered it.

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