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The Membranes

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The Membranes was a book that I can appreciate even though it wasn't really the typical kind of book I would read. I'm trying to expose myself to more translated works and I thought this one was good!!! I would recommend it to others, but only to a specific kind of reader.
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4.5 / 5

Due to the brutal climate change, humanity has moved to live at the bottom of the ocean, where the geographical distribution includes not only known countries, but also powerful media conglomerates. Our protagonist, Momo, is the most recognized dermal care technician in T City, offering a unique treatment for her clientele.

"... she felt like she was always battling to get to some urgent destination that she couldn't even name."

Despite Momo's fame for her excellent work performance, she is a person who prefers to spend time alone rather than with other people. As we read, we learn more about her, about her relationship with her mother and about her past, which will allow us to understand her personality more and more. The plot is very interesting, and little by little we will delve into the treatment that Momo provides, which is not as innocent as it seems at first, and also how humanity came to live in that place.

The world building is very well done for the few pages of the story and I definitely would have liked to know more, although the author adds details as the story progresses. It is written in a very pleasant way, and the pace is quite fast, so the reading is very entertaining.

One of the things that struck me the most about the novel was its publication year, 1995, since it deals with gender and sexuality issues with an open mind, which makes it a progressive book for its time. However, the real shock was the end. Sublime. Not only did it surprise me, but it got me thinking several hours later. I highly recommend this book!
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The Membranes by Chi Ta-wei 
Translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich 
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The Membranes is a work of speculative fiction that takes place in the near future in which humans live underwater with Momo as our main protagonist. Chi Tai-wei imagines an elaborate dystopian reality and there is something effortless and fluid about The Membranes's prose as translated by Heinrich. 
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I wish I could peel this book layer by layer to reveal its essence to you. However, I cannot and I would be too presumptuous to even think I could. There is so much to discuss. Chi Ta-wei touches on so many topics from gender, sexuality to artificial intelligence, ecology, and what it means to be human.
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For now, let me rejoice at a dystopian book that for once completely smashes the heteronormative model that is alas considered the norm in most societies today and which delves into a mother's love for their child.
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As I read The Membranes, I felt like I was on a walk down memory lane. I was reminded of Ghost in The Shell by Masamune Shirow. I was also reminded of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K.Dick, and a recent SF read by Korean author Kim Cho-yeop titled 지구 끝의 온실 (A Greenhouse at the End of the World*) that is alas not available in translation. 
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Towards the end of the book, I also had a great "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"** moment and I can say that I did not see it coming. Now, I wish I had picked this as a Translated Gems Book Club read, so I could get other people's perspectives on it. 
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* I translated the title literally
** A short story by Philip K.Dick 
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"Waves of human settlers inevitably led to the ecological devastation of the ocean floor, but people felt they’d done their best to act humanely. Don’t blame us, they thought, we did the best we could."
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"Instead, she felt like she was always battling to get to some urgent destination that she couldn’t even name. Battling . . . In the most primitive sense, a battle is when a couple of insects or wild animals or humans go head to head to see who comes out on top."
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"The fate of each and every spectator depended on the outcome. Safe under the purple sky of a waterproof and earthquake-proof membrane, deep beneath the ocean, people lived out their days like flowers in a greenhouse."
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"Nowadays sexual etiquette called for gleaming, soft skin in bed— not for lingerie emblazoned with some gaudy label."
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"This was the culture now. These were the instigators of the “3B” movement in T City: Body, Books, Beauty. A great body paired with refined reading habits was the height of beauty."
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"Miranda delivers her famous speech in which she reveals her vision of this mortal world: “O wonder!/ How many goodly creatures are there here!/ How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world/ That has such people in it!” By the end of the play, like a canary flying free from its cage, Miranda returns to live in the beautiful world just as she’s always dreamed. But there was nothing in the play about what happened to her afterward. Did Miranda regret going back to her father’s land? Did she escape the panthers and poison gas of the world beyond her cage? Having flown free, how did she know the outside world wasn’t just another, slightly bigger cage?"
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I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I started this. Almost DNF'd. Glad I stuck it out because ... It's much different than what I thought it was. Strangely prescient for a novel written in 1995.

Thanks to the author, the publisher, and NetGalley for a copy of the ARC.
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This was a really refreshing and unique kind of sci-fi book. The way gender and sexuality is expressed in the book is also really progressive and definitely ahead of the time in which it was written. The entire idea of these renewable, protective/beautifying skins was really interesting. The discussions of AI and cyborgs were also fascinating and thought provoking. The twist was unexpected.
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The Membranes was such a mesmerizing book. I loved the vivid imagery throughout, and the science fiction aspect only added to the book's compelling vibe. The Membranes did cyborgs in a way that was quite unique and really felt visceral to me. And that's not even going into the setting, with a membrane protecting the denizens of the ocean floor. The author managed to get all of this across with minimal exposition dumping. At the times when the author did do that, the story lost its way a bit for me. Overall, this book was like the science fiction version of magical realism, like urban climate fiction, like an actual place I could visit. I am honestly shocked that this was originally from the 1990s, because it truly felt contemporary. I wish that it was longer. 

I also really appreciated the essay after the story itself. As someone with no connection to Taiwanese culture or knowledge of the spec fic context there, it really opened my eyes to things I didn't pick up on just by reading the story. It did get a little opaque at times, but the author's own experiences were enough to keep me intrigued throughout. I recommend this book to anyone looking for a short, twisty sci fi story with unique worldbuilding that will truly make you think.
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The Membranes is an intoxicating tale perfect for a new, more intersectional kind of reader, This story is strange, cerebral, at times unbelievable, and always beautiful. It truly is unlike anything else you will ever read.
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The Membranes (written by Chi Ta-wei, translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich) is a sci-fi book from the 90s, but I'd say it aged well. It's the story of Momo, a dermatologist specializing in putting a layer of artificial skin on her clients. It's not the only type of membrane I  the story--membranes are present everywhere, in stories her clients tell her and in her own experiences.

I loved how subtle this book was with its imagery, such as the way Momo was introduced—momo is Japanese for peach and in the very first scene the character is caught eating one.

The twists are subtle too and they mostly have to do with world building and the differences between the real world and the future imagined in the book. In this regard the book has clear environmental undertones.

It's a (very queer) book about identity and self, and about our relationship to technology. And yes, it has a Shyamalan-worthy twist—but whether it's The Sixth Sense-type of genius twist or The Happening-level disaster probably depends on who reads it. To me, it was a bit overdone, but all in all, a sad, dark ending I wasn't disappointed with. If you liked Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go or enjoyed classic sci-fi flicks like The Matrix, you'll enjoy this one too.

My only issue with the book was how exposition-heavy it was. After an initial couple of scenes, the author just dunks pages upon pages of exposition onto the readers presenting everything that happened between now and the 22nd century and explaining how the world works in the book. All of it is an interesting concept, but I'm here to read a story, not a description.
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Interesting book! After I read Qiu Miaojin's work (which I believe has the same translator as The Membranes), I'm really glad to have gotten the chance to read more queer Taiwanese literature. It reflects the very interesting time of post-martial law era of Taiwan and its queer scene. 

When I picked up this book, I didn't expect it to be sci-fi and I was pleasantly surprised. I wished the book was longer, and explored more of the world it introduced, especially in the chapter after the big reveal. It didn't affect me the same way Notes of a Crocodile did, for example, but I still found it enjoyable and interesting.

I liked the themes of race, gender, and sexuality in the text, making an essentially causal queer world. I appreciated the afterword by the translator giving more information about the author too!

The ending was somewhat hopeful, giving the impression that Momo can be finally happy, in a way made it truly bittersweet and sad.
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What a strange and fascinating book! I didn't know the time period and historical context in which this was written originally when I first read it (Taiwan, 1995, post-martial law). It was interesting to begin with, but adding in the knowledge of the time period in which it was written made it all the more interesting. The conception of the early and late 21st century as told by an author from the late 20th century is fascinating, and perhaps not entirely inaccurate.

I don't really want to say more than that about the specific plot, because it all unfolds in the way that it's supposed to when you read it. I can say that a lot of sci-fi and speculative fiction tropes and ideas are touched upon in this novella, as are historical and cultural references to Taiwan, so there's something in there for most anyone to find interesting and enjoy, or at least find thought-provoking!
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The perspective of a wellness worker in 2100 starts of clunky but turns into a truly ambitious and gripping read, full of great ideas on not just the future, internet but on society as well
Safe under the purple sky of a waterproof and earthquake-proof membrane, deep beneath the ocean, people lived out their days like flowers in a greenhouse 

Even the future is queer in The Membranes, a 1996 novel that incorporates effortless queerness and new kinds of relations besides the nuclear family through the eyes of a wellness worker in 2100. The emphasis Chi Ta-wei puts on that it is 2100 feels slightly clumsily at the start of the novel, but the undersea setting is original.
Momo her love for old fashioned e-mail and hate for video calls, plus love for online shopping and door delivery feels especially poignant in our COVID-19 times.
And her focus on data privacy, especially medical feels very of the current time as well.
Plus the idea that fashion companies make more by focussing on beauty products and skincare is very accurate and foreshadows actual strategic moves of these types of companies.
There are cyborg subhuman strata used for hard and menial work and organ donation (hello Never Let Me Go) and gladiatorial fights between nations in an essentially Bladerunner/Ghost in the Shell type of world. Even more interesting is how a major plot element of Klara and the Sun, also by Kazuo Ishiguro, is also present in this book, just involving a clone instead of an artificial friend.
Finally, predicting cloud computing and Citrix servers, was very impressive in 1996 as well.

The ozone layer failing and leading people to live under the seas feels rather quaint, antiquated, while the societal reverse discrimination based on skin color and the protection a black skin offers against UV-rays was quite daring if underdeveloped. And there are laserdiscs as a saviour for e-pubs and a means to beat Microsoft which was hilarious.
Questions of a practical nature popped up with me while reading, like how can we build underwater cities but not sun protection over cities above ground?
And what do we do with Switzerland and other landlocked nations? Wouldn’t the building not just be at the coasts given the costs?
At the start of the book there is a lot of tell, instead of show, while bold ideas are introduced in short succesion; like I can see that The Three-Body Problem, hallmark of contemporary Chinese science fiction, was kind of written in the same manner.

Chapter 6 is exceptionally strong and from this point forward the William Shakespeare references and Italo Calvino his If on a Winter's Night a Traveller comes back as well, making sense in the context of the novel.
Chapter 9 was also remarkable and gives both Truman show vibes and reminded me of the central part of The Neverending Story.

Overall this book is so much more surprising and daring than I imagined upfront or based on reading the first chapters. I loved how many of the tropes we now find normal in science fiction are foreshadowed and used so skilfully by the author. Highly recommend for anyone who likes their fiction ambitious and surprising!
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Interesting premise, but the plot has the slowest development. Maybe it was the translation and reading it as an e-book vs a physical copy, but I could not finish this book.
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I like my science-fiction 'light', dealing with human and ethical questions rather than speculating about technological developments (e.g. Ishiguro yes, Star Wars definitely not). So, after the first few chapters, describing how humanity had moved to live on the bottom of the ocean and with a cyborg making an appearance, I was not sure this was going to work to for me. But I was gradually drawn into the story and very much enjoyed the ending. It offers a reading experience similar to watching a good episode of Black Mirror. 

The book is originally from 1995, so it inevitably feels a bit dated (e.g. it sees the thinning ozone layer as greater threat than CO2-emissions), but the main ideas are still relevant and have only become more topical.

Also, make sure to read the 'extra materials' at the end because it contains a lot of interesting background on the context in which the novel was conceived (which they call Taipei's 'queer punk scene' that emerged after the country's lifting of martial law and opening up to Western culture - in fact, there are many references to the works of Almodovar, Bergman, Italo Calvino) as well as an analysis of the text demonstrating there is much more to it than I had noticed from a single reading. Quite impressive this was written by a 23-year old.
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Thank you to Columbia University Press and Netgalley for allowing me to read this translation of The Membranes!

I picked up this novel because of the cover as well as the description, which promised a futuristic/sci-fi novel written in 1995 that examines sexuality, gender, and other social issues. The prospect of living under the sea after the depletion of the ozone layer is one I've never seen explored (as novels usually explore space travel) so I wanted to pick it up to give it a try. I also took a class about technology and its place in society and its sociological connections, so this was right up my alley.

I generally enjoyed the book. I found the descriptions very simple but effective, able to picture the taste of Momo's sweet peaches and Momo's initial understanding of her "birth" story. I also found the a lot of the characters' lack of empathy and self-focus very on par with society's view of issues today, such as Tomie's lack of care for her dog's puppies simply because she found it gross. I was interested the explorations of climate change, identity, bodily autonomy and intimacy, gender and sexuality (in Momo's conception and her identity with her gender), and more. I also enjoyed Momo's interactions with other characters and with her own personal thoughts as it made it easy to see her motivations.

Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of cases where it falls flat. A lot of the world building is kind of just an info dump at the beginning of the novel, which made it extremely hard to get into and I struggled to keep track of what was going on and why. I also think that it moved fast with unknown time gaps in certain spots, which made it harder to keep track of. There were a few scenes that did make me extremely uncomfortable, such as those that pertained to unconsensual medical practices; molestation; and certain views of newer, heliophobic-motivated racism.

I would certainly be interested in learning what the differences are between the translated and original versions of this story.

Trigger/content warnings include: molestation, organ harvesting, blood, uncongenial medical procedures
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Originally written in 1995, this sci-fi novel from Taiwan chronicles the life of Momo, a woman who works as a famous dermal care technician. She is a solitary person, preferring to stay home alone and observe, and not participating herself. After an email reconnects her with her estranged mother, it leads her down a path filled with memories as she grapples with her identity in this impersonal, machine-orientated world.
Over 25 years later, it still offers commentary on society today.

The story features many of the now common sci-fi tropes: the earth is dying and humans are now leaving under the sea. Corporations have replaced nations and digital consumption is on an all-time high. Technology has advanced far enough to allow for indescribable medical procedures. Still, it does not feel thoughtless or derivative. Ta-wei clearly made it his own creation and all of his choices serve a purpose. The articles in the back also helped me contextualize this novel in the broader social and political climate in Taiwan when this was written.

The title, the cover art of the peach, Momo's name, and her job all weave together this great metaphor about (your) perception of reality. From a childhood where she spent 3 years sick and isolated in a hospital to the fantastical origin story her mother tells her of her birth, it's all textualized in Momo's work on M-skin. The skins offers healthy protection (not unlike the domes that protect its citizens from the sun's radiation) but also put a physical barrier between the user and its surroundings. Are the positives, like a youthful appearance, worth it?

A critical revelation three-quarters through the novel reframes the entire story and puts it into a new light. All my earlier thoughts of odd references and comparison, choices Momo made that did not fit of her character or her general lifestyle are explained and explored through a new lens that add an entirely new dimension.

There always seemed to be a disconnect between the reader and Momo, as well as Momo and her world. She never acted in a way I would expect a child or adult to act, her mannerisms felt out of place as well. Most of the plot happens to her: she gets visits to her house, a dog is thrust into her care, her mother reaches out first. I've put those thoughts aside, it wasn't the focus of the story, the importance lies in Momo's inner life and the questions she tries to answer as she looks into her past to find out what parts of her body are truly hers, how the distant relationship to her mother has shaped her present and how she is basically wrapped in a membrane herself, unable to connect with the outside world.
All those worries and points of contention were erased by the end.
This is masterfully crafted.
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What an introspective and stimulating read!

This book really took some turns in such a short amount of time! The big twist if we can call it that was very disorienting for me, wow.
I think in a way this book powerfully plays with the reader's perception.

Three aspects that I really loved in this book were 1) how matter-of-fact / casually queer this was, 2) how deliciously detailed the worldbuilding of this near future, underwater world was, as well as 3) the use of both metaphorical and physical membranes as a way to tackle many of the presiding themes such as self-identity and bodily autonomy.
There was also a lot of morally ambiguous characterization and exploration. 

Sometimes I had issues with pacing which I think may be the result of the story structure itself (where Momo's backstory as well as some parts of the worldbuilding is sort of a chunk in the middle of the story). I think it ultimately works out as the narrative progresses, however, it didn't feel very smooth for me as reader. 

So much context and insight from the translator’s note. Helped me clear the head right after the story had wrapped up. I think it's a great addition to the translated work. 

Honestly can’t believe this was originally published in the 90s I feel like it has a lot of fresh musings for 2021 as well.
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The Membranes was originally published in Taiwan in the 90s and has just been translated into English for the first time. This book was absolutely bonkers, and I loved it. It is a quick read at only ~150 pages, but don't let that fool you; this queer, speculative fiction novella packs a whole novel's-worth of twists and turns inside. Science fiction and Weird fiction fans, pick this up ASAP!

The ozone layer has completely disintegrated, and humanity has migrated to the ocean floor to avoid the sun's harmful rays. Momo, the MC, is a renowned "dermal care technician" (plastic surgeon/esthetician) whose treatments contain a secret ingredient. The reader follows Momo as she uncovers her past and attempts to reconcile with her estranged mother. There is plenty of queer rep and some great commentary on race, gender, and capitalism.
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4 surprising stars

**Thank you to NetGalley for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.**
#TheMembranes #NetGalley

Pros
+ such a cool setting (ozone holes mean cyborgs are used for solar panel maintenance & surface wars while the majority of humanity has settled in sea bed bio-domes)
+ lots of Momo ruminating on the difference between cyborgs, androids, military units, humans, and who deserves the right to live for themselves and who is sacrificed for others
+ Momo's job is deliciously weird (massaging a protective skin layer onto her clients so they don't visibly age, which she then peels off and renews at their next appt)
+ M "memory" skin where once Momo peels it off of clients she can "wear" the skin and experience everything they experienced from every membrane (the ultimate body tourist)
+ complicated mother-child family dynamics
+ queer elements
+ devastating ending I never saw coming which changed EVERYTHING (this was going to be a 3/3.5 but then the last 20% brought it up to a 4)

Cons
- disjointed/somewhat jerky narration style (back and forth through time, also sometimes switching to a history of how the current world came to be)
- info-dumpy in the history passages

TW: war (off-page), environmental degradation, solar-based illnesses, hospital setting, minor and major surgery, body horror, nudity
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This is one of the weirdest books I've read to date and I mean that with the utmost joy and respect. 

The Membranes follows thirty-year-old Momo, a dermal care technician in New Taiwan in the year 2100. Climate change has decimated the planet to the point that life on Earth's surface is no longer survivable. As a result humanity has, the most part, migrated to hubs on the ocean floor. Government, industry, society, science, technology, medicine, war, etc. have all been dramatically altered to adapt to these new circumstances.

Momo narrates the book from a first-person perspective, mainly telling the experiences of her life through memories. We are told about her rise to celebrity fame as a dermal care technician, her tumultuous relationship with her mother, and a questionable surgery that happens when she is 10-years-old following a serious viral infection. Momo describes new technologies, unabashed queer relationships, and casual sexual relationships that directly contradict the norm of our present-day society. 

It is important to note that while this is a new translation available to English readers, The Membranes is not a new book. Chi Ta-wei wrote and published this book originally in Taiwan in 1995. Ta-wei has some progressive musings on gender and sexuality for 2021, let alone 1995. I can't comment on how this would've gone over in China, but I imagine this work of queer speculative fiction made waves then as well. 

I had a *great* time reading this. It was slim but packed a punch in a short number of pages. Also, the shift towards the end was something I was not expecting in the slightest and it was one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I've had in a long time. Absolutely fantastic. A+

**I received an eARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Big thanks to NetGalley and the publisher!
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In 2100 civilization has moved to subaquatic habitats due to climate change, the earth became uninhabitable thanks to the hole in the ozone layer (everyone remember what a topic this was in the 90s? Boy did we stop talking about that). As a result of the conditions on earth people became increasingly concerned with skincare, and carried on those habits after the move under the sea. Momo is an elite dermal care technician, a bit isolated, she doesn't seek partners or relationships most of the time. Unknown to her clients, the membrane skin treatments provides Momo most of the intimacy she needs (through the work Momo seems to be what we would now consider bisexual/aromantic), except that of the estranged mother she hasn't really talked to in 20 years.
In her childhood Momo's mother was a major executive at MegaHard, always working, the only brief relationships she saw her mother connect to people were with other women, and her mother's own dermal technician, that seems to be what pushed her into the career. However, Momo was very sick as a child and underwent a major surgery, that included gender reassignment (warning for this, it does not seem to have been traumatic, but Momo was not consulted/non-consenting). When Momo came home from the hospital, her longtime friend in the hospital no longer in her life, her mother just as absent as ever, Momo's relationship with her mother was permanently fractured. That's not the whole story though, as Momo re-connects with her mother suddenly after 20 years, she uncovers deep secrets about her mother and herself that she could have never conceived.

This slim novella packs an incredible punch in ideas, prescience to contemporary technology and discussion of gender & sexuality. Not only that, but it was written in Taiwan in 1995, translated to English for the first time just now. The translator gives wonderful context for this having been part of an explosion of ideas in the Taipei punk scene just after coming out of martial law, when artistic experimentation was booming. There is also included a brilliant breakdown of the ideas explored by the novella; the lengthy added section at the back with critical analysis made this well worth the price to pick up a copy for myself.
The main thing that weakened the story for me is a pretty hefty info dump, where we essentially get introduced to Momo initially, then the narrative is "here's everything that's happened in the past 100 years" for a complete chapter, which may not work for some readers. If you are in for thought provoking science fiction, I very highly recommend picking this one up.
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