A song of magic and science

I am up to book 4 of Song of Ice and Fire, and something has been troubling me. In GRRM's world where magic is real, and by extension, the gods both old and new, it is irrational to be an atheist. To deny the power of a god or magician is to deny the nature of reality. As much as there is merit in scientific thought (a big chain over the mouth of the river was a deft move after all, napalm or no) when obsidian kills a zombie with +11 fire magic, all bets are off.

This is a fundamental difference between our world and fantasy lands but the rules of life should change accordingly. Yet religion is still presented as a slightly absurd notion, and magic often treated with the scepticism we rightly place on the David Copperfields of our world. I didn't notice or mind this when I was 11, but I have to say I find this more than a little disconcerting as a 33 year old atheist. In a world of magic, religious fundementalists are completely sane and justified in their fire and brimstone beliefs. And if a Seer sees your death in the flames of a fire, you'd be a damn fool not to put on fresh underwear. All this is fine as long as the world is consistent, all the way down. But in the land of Westeros -- like so many fantasy lands -- there are little things that bother me, and these details make all the difference. If magic is real, then why bother with leaches and potions at all? If the gods are real, then burn the non believers at the stake.

In a recent interview for google authors, GRR Martin commented on how happy he was to see the uber geeks of silicone valley -- traditionally Scifi nerds -- embrace fantasy. He went on to say how there has been a divide between the two genres, but that this is closing as the fans of both find themselves drawn equaly between fantasy and scifi. Group hug. Perhaps he has a point, if you consider how much scifi is mere fantasy with laser swords. But this is my point, there should be a divide between fantasy and scifi, just as big as there is beween a theist and an atheist. 

Magic 1, Atheism 0.

This might seem like an absurd argument to be making, after all a fantasy land is fantastical by default. Doubly absurd is the fact that I myself have created one such land for my own book. But if you read my book, you'll see that it is pretty much a long winded answer to this problem. Everything in my world is done with magick, and there is no place for science at all, other than the mundane application of heat to food you achieve when you cast a spell to cause a rock to ignite. And the more I think about it, thew more certain I am that this is an important distinction to make. A world that tries to incorporate both magic and science is doomed to have logic faults that run down to the core. And by extenstion there is a fundamental difference between scifi and fantasy. One of the very first arguments I had online (in an "Aintitcool news forum of all places back in the late 1990s) was about this very argument. The argument got into the absurd bickering about which sub genre was superior -- which is silly, but at the start it was about defining terms. I think the definitions still stand:

Science says the world is chaotic, yet works because of elegant principles that we humans can comprehend with reason and experimentation, and perhaps even exploit to make the world a better place (that is, better for humans)

Magic says the world is intrinsically a balanced system of light/dark, good/bad, chaotic/ordered powers, that humans stand in the center of, to exploit it all by the power of our will (or some choice spoken words and few pints of blood as the case may be). 

In a magic world, the universe (gods or force or whatever) cares about us, is effected by us, is created, in essence, for us. The scientific world (ie. the real world) could not care less if humans conquer the galaxy or are reduced to bacteria. I don't think you can have it both ways.

I love a Song of Ice and Fire more than any other story I have read for a long while. The characters are real, I feel their plight and pain and am shocked and saddened by the twists of fate that befall them. But in the end, magic will win, because in GRR Martin's world, it is real. 

The heros of our real world that I belive in; Sagan, Darwin, Dawkins, Hawkins -- these men would be fools in the land of Westeros, madmen who would need locking away for insisting that a comet is merely a large lump of ice in orbit, or that there is no evolutionary benefit for a reptile to develop the ability to breath fire. Madmen, the lot of them -- burn them at the stake in the name of R'hllor. 

About me.


  1. I write this from a pagan standpoint. I'm also very scientific.

    "In a magic world, the universe (gods or force or whatever) cares about us, is effected by us, is created, in essence, for us."

    Not necessarily. Who exactly decided that the gods give a damn about humans? What's to say they didn't create the world, watch it get created, whatever, then sit back and watch it like a bizarre episode of Big Brother?

    "Magic says the world is intrinsically a balanced system of light/dark, good/bad, chaotic/ordered powers, that humans stand in the center of, to exploit it all by the power of our will"

    Again - who decided that humans are at the centre of it? You should also bear in mind that it's realistic to consider magick use in the same manner as any other skill - playing music, art, sport, etc. Where as yes, everyone can learn the base skills not everyone will achieve the same levels. As such, it's perfectly logical to find non-magickal solutions for those who can't perform all of the magickal tasks etc.

    Also, you seem to assume that because magick is present that people won't bother to try and gain a greater understanding of their world. We know that gravity exists and works, did that make us go "nope, it works, it always works, we will just accept that"? Or genetics and disease? Why would the presence of magic change that?

    It seems quite mad to consider that the gods would really bother to control every teeny little action, reaction, etc. It seems sensible that at some point people are going to push their luck, test the boundaries and see how things work.

    1. Gods that don't give a damn about us, by definition, wouldn't listen to our prayers, and therefore, would be about as useful as gods that don't exist.

      But I get your point -- I have simplified my argument a little so as not to write another novel tonight. But hear me out. What I mean by saying that humans are at the centre in a universe of magic, is only that if magic works by our will (or prayers or any other spooky action at a distance) then it implies that the universe is "listening" to our thoughts, or can at least hear our intentions if we shout loud enough. The only way our intentions can be heard in a scientific universe is if we build a big enough lever. Another point to make here is why only some can do magick and others can't. Is it a skill to be learned -- if so, it is a science and the Wizards should get off their asses and build a magickal particle accelerator and find the Higgs Bosson of magic. If only some people have the "gift" then why? What about them is special? An extra nodule in their brain? and extra gland in their spine? Or just something spiritual, something that again, defies all definition -- and just IS. That seems to point to a universe again that is affected by our presence in an unexplainable, and therefore, totally unscientific way.

      And I see your point about magic not necessarily halting scientific investigation, but what I see as the problem, is that if i were a scientific minded person in a world where magic was evidently real, then I would put all my research into working out why it was real and how it worked. To use an example from GRR Martin, if it was seen to be true that the blood of kings could be used efficiently as a way to create shadow monsters, then I would be collecting as much as possible and making an army -- not bothering to build armour and swords.

      I grew up with a lot of christian friends, and they always talk about how science and religion can coexist. How can this be? Either Han is a badass, or Han is fool. Either way he still shot first.

  2. Let's start from the top -
    I am a pagan, not a christian. Very different belief system. I'm also scientific, with a great interest in genetics and other things. My beliefs run along side science very nicely thank you.

    Next - Why do gods have to be useful? Why do they have to interact with people to be useful? They provide a service - they give people something to talk to and believe in during hard times. They take some pressure of people's shoulders. You also have to consider that yes, they're gods but I really can't see them bothering to take an interest in everyone. We pick and choose who and what we give our attention to, why would or should they be any different?

    Why does magick have to be separate from science? Modern day pagans etc actually take a rather scientific attitude to our beliefs and magick. We do try and understand how it works. Why would we sit and just shrug it off, accepting that it works and leaving it at that?

    You have to take into consideration within this fiction that the author is working not only within their own experience, research, beliefs and understanding but also the constraints of their characters. Where as it may well be logical to us to research and find out how these things work, their characters may be of the personality etc which means they're not.

    Why is something unexplainable unscientific? To my mind, nothing is unexplainable, it's just not explainable at this point in time with the knowledge and tools we currently have access to.

    You're seeing this all from an atheistic, modern scientific view. If you're going to look at this properly, surely you need to put yourself in the position of the characters and their setting.

    1. I didn't mean at all to suggest that you were a Christian, or that Pagans and Christians are at all similar. I only mentioned it because I grew up with believers and have experience with the contradictions they insist are perfectly reasonable.

      God's don't have to be useful at all, I'm just saying that in a world where they are useful, it makes not believing in them not only impractical, but also insane. This would be the oposite of the world we live in, where to believe in an entity that canot be proven to exist, is considered insane. I really don't want this to devolve into a theistic debate, because I can see you have your own beliefs about pagan deities. I am merely making the point that every Fantasy book presents a hypothetical world where gods and magick are literally real, proven by the acts of spells and wonder we see unfold. It is in this reality, that I find it uneasy as it is so fundamentally different from our reality. In the real world, the only evidence of the power of gods or magick is, as you say, the comfort they give us through our own faith.

      I do think magick has to be separate from science for the simple fact that if you can show me a spell that works consistently every time you say the words, with the same result every time -- then there must be something at work to produce said effect. If so, then we can deduce through scientific process what is causing it and isolate the fundamental principle at work. This is no longer magick then, but just another mundanely wonderful law of nature understood. Like magnets.

      And I get your point about the limitations of character. But this is kind of my point. Tyrion Lannister is a scientific thinker if ever there was. He is canny and uses his wits whenever he can. If he for instance, comes across a magickal instrument, I am sure he will use it to whatever advantage he can, along the way trying to work out what makes it tick. But there are characters that should do this and dont. Stannis Baratheon for example, decides that it would be a good idea to start mining obsidian, but does not question why it works the way it does -- he merely accepts that it is "frozen fire" But I am only up to book 4.

      And something that has not been explained yet is not the same as something unexplainable. Something unexplainable is by definition unscientific. And to use a tautology, anything that can be explained, is science. For example, saying "god did it" is not an explanation, any more than saying "it just is" However, if you tell me that gods are actually ancient AIs in orbit around the planet who use nanotechnology to manipulate the minds of their believers and grant the prayers of the faithful, then you are a little more along the way to scientific thinking. I challenge you to show me something that is both explainable and magical. At some point in the example, there will be a part that is itself, unexplainable. Like homeopathy

      And you are right, I am seeing this from an atheistic modern view point -- but the books i'm speaking of are written in the 20th and 21st century, so I think its fair to consider them as such. And beside, if I really put myself in the thinking shoes of one of the characters in Westeros or Middle Earth for that matter, I'd either consider these books to be the word of gods and literally true, or more likely ignore them completely as a waste of time and get back to sewing my fields and hoping I don't die when winter comes.

      None of this takes me away from the fact that I love these stories very much, as much as I enjoy a hearty debate like this to be honest -- it is just that I cannot help but feel uneasy when fantasy and scifi are lumped together when they are so very very different.

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  4. Apparently, my response is so long that I'm going to have to split it up into more than one comment. Sorry for the length. Here goes...

    I have to disagree with your definitions and your conclusion. For context, I am a devout Christian of the Catholic variety.

    First, I do agree with you about ASOIAF. Not that they are good books, because I couldn't bare to finish them (I only made it all the way through the first two, I think), but that the universe doesn't work because it doesn't seem to have been very well thought through. It doesn't work on a metaphysical level. And I agree that there should be a strong distinction between sci fi and fantasy. Specifically, I don't want sci fi treading on my fantasy turf and bringing its themes and ideas to my fantasy party. But back to your definitions...

    "Science says the world is chaotic, yet works because of elegant principles that we humans can comprehend with reason and experimentation, and perhaps even exploit to make the world a better place (that is, better for humans)"

    This is logically flawed. A world that is "chaotic" cannot work according to principles. Those are two diametrically opposed ideas, unless you are using a very different definition of "chaotic" than the one in the dictionary. If this is what the scientific community is really saying nowadays (though I suspect that your definition is not really representative) then it has truly lost its way. Note that "science" cannot "say" anything because it is a process of study, not a principle of the universe its self.

  5. "Magic says the world is intrinsically a balanced system of light/dark, good/bad, chaotic/ordered powers, that humans stand in the center of, to exploit it all by the power of our will (or some choice spoken words and few pints of blood as the case may be)."

    Once again "magic" "says" nothing of the sort. Magic is like science in a way. In that it uses and manipulates the universe in the same way that science observes and theorizes about the universe: without having any effect on the nature of the universe. "Magic" as an art does not decide how the universe works. Magic is actually somewhat like technology, it is tool use. The difference is that technology runs on natural principles and magic on supernatural ones.

    Furthermore, your definition of "magic" is a very narrow one. That may be how you've decided magic works in your fantasy universe. But it can work in many different ways depending on the universe it exists in. "Magic", for example, in Middle-earth has nothing to do with a balance of fundamentally opposite powers. What is perceived as magic is really just the natural ability of certain types of beings who have different natures than Man, and those beings (Valar and Maiar and Elves) can choose to use their natural abilities to good or evil purposes. Gandalf uses his abilities for good, Sauron uses them for evil, but they are fundamentally the same type of being.

  6. "In a magic world, the universe (gods or force or whatever) cares about us, is effected by us, is created, in essence, for us."

    You seem to be confusing magic with religion. They are different. Again, magic is more like technology but runs on supernatural principles that may or may not be understood. Religion is what explains the universe, not magic. Certain religions (Christianity among them) claim that the universe was created for human beings, but this is not a necessary principle in a fantasy world. A fantasy world could have any purpose its creator wants to give it. Only a being can give anything purpose. Only a being can care about anything. And magic is not a being, it is a tool. Magic and gods are not synonymous. Neither are power and magic.

    "The scientific world (ie. the real world) could not care less if humans conquer the galaxy or are reduced to bacteria."

    I think what you mean here is "the natural world". There is no such thing as "the scientific world" when referring to the universe. Science observes the world, it does not determine it. You really seem to be mistaking "science" for some sort of sentient force or cosmic principle. Again, science is a method of study, nothing more. A method of study cannot think or care about or give purpose to anything and this is so obvious that it need not even be said.

    "I don't think you can have it both ways."

    Sure you can.

    In a world where magic exists and is both observable and able to be recreated (for example, if rituals and spells are used) then such things would be able to be scientifically verified as a part of the natural world.

    The only thing that holds science back is the ability to observe. In most fantasy worlds, magic is observable. In many fantasy worlds, gods are observable as well. (Going back to Middle-earth, during the Lord of the Rings there are still Elves alive who have seen and even lived with the gods of that universe, the Valar.) So in such a universe science isn't opposed to gods and magic, it would in fact have to confirm their existence. And indeed, science CANNOT be opposed to anything that it can observe. Then it would no longer be science. It would just be another philosophy and too many people treat it like a philosophy already.

    1. "In a world where magic exists and is both observable and able to be recreated (for example, if rituals and spells are used) then such things would be able to be scientifically verified as a part of the natural world. "

      This is exactly my point. And exactly how things are not in our "natural" world. The only thing in our world that confirms magic or the power of prayer is the placebo effect coupled with confirmation bias.

      I once read that the best definition between science and magic (or religion) is to imagine a world where all knowledge was lost. A post apocalyptic world where all religious texts, as well as maths, history and science were lost. Centuries on, humans rebuild society and culture from ground up. There would be new religions, new superstitions, but they would all be different from what we have. There may be some similarities, but the details would be completely different, different rituals, different deities, different rules. But if humans re-discovered science, it would be the same. They might have a different language to describe the world, a different way of counting numbers to make maths, but the rules would all be the same. Exactly the same.

      In a fantasy world, this is true of both magic and science -- and so the only point I was trying to make is how strange it is that scifi geeks like myself love reading about worlds where the rules are so different, where scepticism is blatantly wrong, where Han Solo's disbelief is demonstrably false.

      While I agree that religion and magic have some differences, they share a fundamental core which is that they suggest a world that can directly manipulated by conscious will -- be it from a Wizard or God.

      I still don't think you can create a world where both viewpoints are true, for as you say, if the universe can be directly manipulated by our thoughts, and repeatedly proven to do so, then it is that universes scientific truth, and there would be little point in being a non believer.

  7. This is a pretty thought-provoking post.

    Here's a weird thing, a for real weird thing: I'm sitting at home, minding my own business surfing through blogs and I hear my daughter's RC Car make a noise. It says one liners from the Cars 2 movie. I walk over and check the remote. It's off. Nothing is near the remote or the car to cause the car to sound off. After nervously retreating from her toy and sitting down, I'm taken by the thought that I had no explanation for how it happened.

    I say all this to say that, just as I can't fit what happened with that RC car into a defined category, I tend to do the same with a lot of things in life, including defining magic and it's coexistence with science. Fantasy and sci-fi shouldn't have been at odds with each other in the first place. They are both considered the red-headed stepchildren when compared to much of fiction. They both do wonderful things, stretching the imagination and the dreamy scientific applications.

    To me, it's balance period. Things tend to exist in definition of something else. Light and dark. A theist/Atheist.

    1. You RC car example is excellent, and perfectly clarifies the point I am trying to make. In this world, even with our feats of engineering and proven science, we can still see unexplainable mysteries even in one of the creations science has given us. You see no explanation to account for why the car spoke, and so feel a sense of creepy dread, assuming that just perhaps there was a mysterious force at work. Yet I guarantee you that if you were to pull apart the car, you would find that there was a fault in the circuitry, a bit of dust that for a moment shorted out the voice switch. Deep down you know this is the truth, but enjoy the moment of belief such a strange occurrence gave you.

      But if you lived in a fantasy world where ghosts and gods and magic was real, then you would have every right in insisting that perhaps the RC car was possessed by spirits.

      We all tend towards the easier answer of magic explaining things, which is why rational thought must constantly be defended against the gut feeling claims that it is cold hearted and without some essence of humanity or morals that belief in magic has built right in. But this struggle for scientific truth is pointless in a world of magic. Like I said in the original post, Han is demonstrably wrong in his dis-belief in the force, whereas in our world, he would be the badas cynic we love.

  8. "But if you read my book, you'll see that it is pretty much a long winded answer to this problem."
    I hope not. The beginning paragraphs are rather interesting.

    How magic, religion and science fit together all depends on what sort of world a writer wants to create don't it? There are as many variations on it as there are books.

    Some have may have magicians in droves or some may not. David Eddings has two series that run along these two different routes. Scientific methods often run alongside magic as suspicion or lack of ability keeps magic as a secondary option for the average person.

    Some may like to keep a balance of religion to magic, in others it might not be. And if the world's large enough, then you've factions within kingdoms that have varying beliefs. The Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time Series has this. In it, there's at least three factions who all believe the same thing religion-wise, but have a different outlook on magic: one uses it, one wants to chain it and the other wants to execute all magic users.

    Although I think Star Wars is considered Science Fantasy by today’s standards. The definition of the genres is constantly changing. After all, they were both considered as fantasy. For some stories, there a fine line between the two. Kind of like there is beween a theist and an atheist who both believe in their view just as strongly as the other side.
    And I care not who shot first. It was done.

    1. "I hope not. The beginning paragraphs are rather interesting"

      Gosh, I hope I haven't put you off my book! All I meant by that is that in my world, where magic is real, there is really no science other than spells. No gods to worship, as each man woman and child can weave wonders with words, and no horses to ride or swords to wield when a quick spell can achieve the desired result with much greater efficiency.

      It is this "fine line" that I have a problem with, I actually think there is a bloody big line between science fiction and fantasy -- this is the point I am trying (and failing I fear) to make. And I really can't accept the old argument that theism and atheism are both "belief" systems. See my above comment on what would happen in a post apocalyptic world where all human knowledge was wiped and started again. Religion can change, science can only uncover immutable rules.

    2. I was brought up to respect people’s beliefs, even a belief that there is no belief system of non-belief. So let me just say one thing on it: my hubby considers himself an atheist. To him there is no higher power or force, when he dies he fully believes there’ll be nothing beyond. In fact, often the words he uses to explain it starts with “I believe ...”
      Though I’m sure if I were to ask him if every atheist thought that, he’d likely shrug.

      “in my world, where magic is real, there is really no science other than spells.”
      Sounds a bit like the Darksword Series without their religion of ‘those who came before’. I stopped reading part way through book one. There were no boundaries. That’s the biggest rule in magic for me, there must be boundaries. If anything can be done, then nothing is implausible ... or interesting.
      That was a blend of sci-fi and fantasy. Where magicless children were usually slain at birth. Even children were done by magic as the joining of anything, including people was forbidden. Those that had escaped death and couldn’t craft with magic either fled or were exiled to some misty region which turned out to be a portal to Earth.

      While I’m on stories that mix Sci-Fi and Fantasy:
      Andre Norton’s Witch World Series is a blend of Science Fiction and Fantasy. As are Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern. Pier Anthony’s Xanth Series lingers on the same thread as the Darksword Series. That’s just off the top of my head of books I, as a fantasy reader, love. Oh and if you don’t want serious fantasy, there’s Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
      Seems to me that quite a number of popular stories have a mixture of both which works quite well. And the gap between the two is only getting smaller, which is perhaps why you’re failing to make your point. There may have once been a gap when they were first separated, but it’s there no longer. I’ve seen both magic and technology it work alongside each other.

      “I once read that the best definition between science and magic (or religion) is to imagine a world where all knowledge was lost.”
      Not sure how you’d use that sort of setup to explain how Historical Fantasy works. But still ...
      It would have to be a pretty big event to wipe knowledge from the minds of those who survived. I mean, you’d have to be talking the whole world here since an isolated case wouldn’t have such an effect. Now we’ve over six billion people. Even reduced to a 5% global population, around thirty-two million survive. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how you’d have all of them just ... forget.
      Even then, I’d imagine some would be even stronger in their beliefs, so you wouldn’t be completely rid old gods. They might alter in appearance as person faith comes into play, but the core would be the same. People would also try to find each other using whatever technological knowledge they possess. Technology wouldn’t go back to scratch since there’d be core knowledge there too. Those that can build a machine will. If someone had the means to wire up a house to a wind generator, they would.
      Maybe that’s why I can’t stand post apocalyptic stories. They’re nothing like fantasy worlds which are based off their own histories and have had their technology advance as far along as the writer deems necessary to create a story within that realm. Which is how is differs from the real world. There’s one or two people sitting in the background dictating how it all works. Out here, we’ve billions all trying to do that same.

  9. The hypothetical was not to set up a fictional world, rather to use it as a simple way to highlight the difference between magical ideas and scientific understanding. You are right in that it is a very unlikely scenario to occur; the complete loss of knowledge is probably very hard to achieve -- I ask only for you to consider a world where that had in fact happened. This is the whole point of a hypothetical, no matter how absurd, you have to go with it to see if my point sticks.

    Just say it did happen, humanity was reduced to a few thousand that lost everything and for 10,000 years were nothing but cave men. Even better, lets just say aliens wanted to do an experiment, and they take 20,000 children and plonk them down on a planet in some lonely corner of the universe. They do not interfere with these forced colonists, and merely watch as the course of this new society develops.

    In this hypothetical, I put it that religions will inevitably be invented as the primitive people try to explain their world. Science will start to accumulate too as people learn to see and record the cause and effects of their actions. In the end, this culture will be as different from ours as we can imagine. Perhaps these people won't develop religion at all, perhaps they will go the other way and never develop science, but if they do, then I can guarantee that the fundamental laws of the universe the discover will be exactly the same as our own. Their beliefs however, will be utterly different. And that is the difference between science being a belief system and the way religious people talk of faith.

    But all this really is beside the point. The only thing I set out to say was that in a world where magic or gods were proven real, only completely un-scientific thinkers would deny its existence.

    For the record, I hate post apocalyptic stories too. Though, I will say that the only way I think they could save the Star Trek franchise would be to set it in the universe after the fall of the federation. I'd so watch a show about a small band of pre-industrial colonists who find an ancient warp drive starship and set about re-building an intergalactic society.

    This post, and the comments you and others have shared, are the most fun i've ever had on this blog by the way. Thanks.

    Oh, and one more thing, I agree that magic systems without boundaries are very unsatisfying. In my world, magick is like a currency, with all the built in limitations of the rich and the poor. I hope this does not further put you off reading my book. ;)

  10. I'm not sure I quite agree with you that a fantasy world can't have both. Unless you're building the kind of world in which anybody can wield unlimited magic, then there are some things that will have to be done using mundane means.

    If one could study ones whole live to be a Great and Powerful Wizard with mastery over the elements and this power can also be used to, for example, illuminate rooms, that's great - for the Great and Powerful Wizard. Regular folks who want light would either have to pay one of the world's most powerful people to be essentially a candle or use oil lamps like we do in this world.

    Your idea as to the treatment of atheists and rationality of atheism is a more interesting one. I don't know if atheists would be burned at the stake any more than we jail, say, Christian Scientists who don't believe in blood transfusions. I can see that philosophy being seen as crazy and non-mainstream.

    In ASoFaI, I *think* that magic had seemed to fade from the world and was now coming back, which creates a different dynamic. It would be as if, today, you heard a rumor that off in the middle of Africa someplace someone made enough fish and bread appear to feed a crowd, or someone dead came back to life, or someone saw little green men guarding pots of gold and horses with horns on their heads. It's possibly a sign that your atheism is wrong, but equally plausable that gullible people are being fooled into believing old superstitions - or cynical people are trying to fool you.


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