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The Ghosts of Futures Past
September 30, 2008 3:42 PM   Subscribe

"We are living in interesting times; in fact, they're so interesting that it is not currently possible to write near-future SF" – why Charles Stross might have to market his next novel as fantasy.
posted by Artw (65 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Former Interzone editor Jetse de Vries has also been talking about the difficulties of near future SF: "if it looks too believable it (most probably) won't happen; if it looks too implausible it might very well happen."
posted by Artw at 3:43 PM on September 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Not just Chrales Stross. Fetamilter's won Chrales Stross.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:46 PM on September 30, 2008 [11 favorites]


I'm naming my first child "Chrales". I imagine it to be pronounced "Krayles".
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:04 PM on September 30, 2008


Hey, no fair fixing the post!
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:05 PM on September 30, 2008


[typo fixed, carry on]
posted by jessamyn at 4:05 PM on September 30, 2008


This post was deleted for the following reason: This is a single link blgo psot about an issue being discussed in several other thrdeas.
posted by dersins at 4:06 PM on September 30, 2008


I just checked CStross's Saturn's Children out of the library yesterday.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:07 PM on September 30, 2008


I don't get why it's now harder to write near-future sci-fi. The point is to be interesting, not accurate, right? 1984 wasn't very accurate but it was pretty compelling.
posted by GuyZero at 4:11 PM on September 30, 2008


“typo fixed, carry on”

Waht was rwong wiht it?

“Would it have Taikonauts space-walking overhead while the chairman of the Federal Reserve is on his knees? Would it have more mobile phones than people, a revenant remilitarized Russia, and global warming?”

If it was Gibson? Yeah, probably. Plus cybernetic body mods. But yeah, even Gibson has said the wheels left the rails a bit ago.

Still, I’d like to see the street level entrepreneurial moves taking place. I mean, we’re on the edge of cyberpunk dystopia, but no slang, no personal empowerment - just the crushing zaibatsus. Where’s the *style* man!?
posted by Smedleyman at 4:21 PM on September 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


1984 could pretty much be considered a classic of Alt History now, couldn’t it? Still, if in 1949 socialism had completely collapsed or something else had happened to make it seem like a completely improbable future I reckon Orwell would have felt a bit silly.

Hey, no fair fixing the post!

(Grmph. Where were your wriggle red lines stupid spellchecker? Also by some miracle I managed to spell Jetse de Vries right, despite his name looking like a typo to begin with)
posted by Artw at 4:25 PM on September 30, 2008


Near-Future Fiction and The Social 'Uncanny Valley'
posted by Artw at 4:28 PM on September 30, 2008


I just checked CStross's Saturn's Children out of the library yesterday.

I just finished it this week and really enjoyed it.
posted by eyeballkid at 4:31 PM on September 30, 2008


Charlie's great, but I think he overestimates the current chaos as compared to the past. Probably because he's trying to write near future SF now and wasn't trying to do so 30 years ago. Or 20 years ago. Nobody ever had an easy time writing near future SF in terms of accurate predictions of the future.

Thankfully, accurate predictions of the future are not what near future SF should be about. If the point of your novel is to guess precisely what is going to happen, you're doing it wrong.
posted by Justinian at 4:37 PM on September 30, 2008


but no slang

lol
posted by ymgve at 4:40 PM on September 30, 2008 [3 favorites]


Does it have anything to do with the fact that "near-future fiction" would more realistically be written about warring tribes throwing rocks at each other over scraps of plastic than whizzing spaceships and encounters with aliens?
posted by billysumday at 4:40 PM on September 30, 2008 [4 favorites]


Perhaps, since Charlie's a member here, he'd like to comment on this himself.

For my part, I don't know about 'not possible'. Harder, maybe, sure.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:47 PM on September 30, 2008


I'm glad to see Stross's blog has idiot commentators on his blog. "Skip" over there keeps showing his sad little hard-on against "mandated welfare" and keeps suggesting that the military budget is less than 20% of the overall budget, but those numbers are exactly backwards in reality, 68% military to 32% non-military.

I despair.
posted by maxwelton at 4:51 PM on September 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Uh, and I'm an idiot, too. You can delete whatever extra words you like from my prior comment, no charge.
posted by maxwelton at 4:52 PM on September 30, 2008


Near future sometimes has the advantage of being right in the little things even if it's wrong in the big details. The problem with far future sci-fi is that the authors have to create an entire universe out of whole cloth, and inevitably they make something sound off or wrong. It's a lot more difficult sometimes to make a believeable far-future prediction that encompasses aspects of economics, sociology, medicine, physics and business. When people aren't behaving like people, or the artificial constraints on their actions are clumsy or obvious, it's harder to draw people into a story. With near future though, even if there is an obvious dichotomy between fiction and reality, it's still speculative fiction. One can see it as an alternate timeline. The author being able to draw on current culture has fewer predictions or characterizations to get wrong.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:13 PM on September 30, 2008


Still, at least said crisis might postpone the Singularity a bit.
posted by bonaldi at 5:18 PM on September 30, 2008


Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny 55% of plepoe can

i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! if you can raed tihs forwrad it.


Note I did not pen this fascinating paragraph, I could not find the source on the bew
posted by lalochezia at 5:23 PM on September 30, 2008 [4 favorites]


Justinian: If you read Stross' original post, you'd understand the problem he's facing. His point is that, because of long lead times, by the time the book gets published, the future's already the present, and it's probably different from the "future" described in the book, or clearly headed down a different track.

While I won't label Stross as a Singulitarian, he does write Singularity-themed SF, and one of the core concepts of the Singularity is that, on a historic scale, the rate of change is accelerating. So the problem of writing a believable SF novel set 10 years in the future today is (if you accept that premise) more difficult than it was in 1970.
posted by adamrice at 5:45 PM on September 30, 2008


Good blog post, and not unworthy of discussion, but at the same time, kind of old hat? If you're obsessed with William Gibson? (I am completely obsessed with William Gibson.)

Gibson's been saying this since about 2003 (although I seem to recall him making comments to the effect that it was getting difficult to peer forward in No Maps For These Territories, so it kind of started percolating for him even earlier).

We already live in a deeply weird future-time.
posted by sparkletone at 5:46 PM on September 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Don't worry Darlin', now baby don't you fret
We're livin' in the future and none of this has happened yet
posted by jonmc at 5:46 PM on September 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


PS: I did quite like his analysis of how his own material had aged.

(Gibson likes to point out that there are no cell phones in Neuromancer as an instance of where he Got It Wrong in a big way.)
posted by sparkletone at 6:22 PM on September 30, 2008


This is why I don't put actual dates in my books.
posted by jscalzi at 6:33 PM on September 30, 2008 [5 favorites]


I just read Accelerando and loved it.

Thanks for the great read Charles!
posted by bardic at 6:39 PM on September 30, 2008


That's a good idea, jscalzi.
posted by Mister_A at 6:45 PM on September 30, 2008


If you consider 40-50 years "near-future", I have an idea for a near-future sci-fi novel that I've been mulling around for several years, that grew out a terribly punny title (that I have registered as a domain name I'm not telling anybody about). It's about corporate media, creative rights, personal identity, the "uncanny valley", privacy, underground sexual politics, commercial spaceflight, pure vs. applied scientific research, efforts to make human beings dispensable and the worst possible circumstances to make "First Contact" with an alien civilization. I have a basic story structure, a handful of "ha-has" (just enough to mean I have to add more "ha-has" and make it Humorous Near-Future Sci-Fi with an obviously satirical bent) and a couple of very well-defined main characters who are both a lot NOT like me in different ways and who I am having a lot of trouble writing dialogue for.

The most interesting things I've noticed while not pushing this concept forward is how some of the elements have gotten 20 years closer in the last 10 years while others remain just as distant. Not enough discrepancy to make having them happen at the same time impossible, but if I don't write it pretty soon, it might.
posted by wendell at 6:47 PM on September 30, 2008


To tell you the truth, I am mostly obsessed with writing werewolf stories and comedy these days, because SF is all over the news. I mean, 2000-ft building in Dubai? Imminent nationalization (potentially) of various financial institutions (I believe a few European banks have already been nationalized). Caribou Barbie? She is a character from Vonnegut, surely, and not a real historical person!

So yea, werewolves and comedy.
posted by Mister_A at 7:05 PM on September 30, 2008


Happy birthday wendell!
posted by jessamyn at 7:05 PM on September 30, 2008


"Skip" over there keeps showing his sad little hard-on against "mandated welfare" and keeps suggesting that the military budget is less than 20% of the overall budget, but those numbers are exactly backwards in reality, 68% military to 32% non-military.

I'm too lazy to find a better source (ack! PDFs!), but Wikipedia says the 2008 budget was:

21.0% Social Security
16.6% Department of Defense
13.3% Medicare
11.2% Unemployment/Welfare/Other mandatory spending
9.0% Interest on the national debt
7.2% Medicaid and SCHIP
5.0% Global War on Terror (which apparently deserves its own section?)
...

If we include the $190B for Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008 (which we should), then military spending is about 20%, while non-discretionary spending is over 50%. Are you using a different set of numbers? Has Wikipedia led me astray?
posted by The Tensor at 7:50 PM on September 30, 2008


This is why I don't put actual dates in my books.

I knew there was something wrong with The Android's Dream. I'm returning it for a refund, seeing as how it's defective.
posted by TypographicalError at 9:06 PM on September 30, 2008


I have an idea for a near-future sci-fi novel that I've been mulling around for several years

You're not starting out from a very original premise.
posted by Cyrano at 9:54 PM on September 30, 2008


I just picked up Accelerando, which then prompted me to pick up one of everything else he's got on the shelves. That said.

He's just in a lazy and uninspired mood.

These days, William Gibson can write near-term SF that's only five or six months out. Yes, he's the zen master of techno-dystopia and writes hovering six inches above a Vitra chair in the lotus position, letting his thoughts trickle into his iPod Touch telepathically. But what he does, pick a thread and follow it to its speculative conclusion, is fed by his obsessions - technology-as-style, fashion-as-technology, neuroscience, wealth as a transhumanizing agent, strong and capable women who look good in leather.

Stross needs to stop whining and follow his obsessions - complex financial and legal schemes as advanced weapons technology, wealth as a tool rather than as an end, the inability of the vastly powerful to recognize their vast power as a handicap, strong and capable women who look good in leather.

Don't focus on outcomes, the big picture is for suckers destined for the dime-a-book rack. Focus on what you know. Science Fiction, at its best, is about =now=, not later.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:59 PM on September 30, 2008 [7 favorites]


Hm. I think the link I looked at essentially grouped all defense and "national security" spending together. And now I can't get back to the link...it was that fairly famous poster of the budget, split into circles of relative size.
posted by maxwelton at 10:29 PM on September 30, 2008


Maxwelton: You mean the "Death and Taxes" chart (now, new improved, flashified interface, updated for 2009, almost deserves an FPP for itself!)

Summarising for 2009's 1.182 Trillion dollar budget:
Non-Military/National Security spending: 33%
Military/National Security spending: 79%

DOD budget $515bn = 43% of total budget
War on Terrrrrr: $189bn = 16% of total
posted by nielm at 2:24 AM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


You mean the "Death and Taxes" chart

Also created by a Metafilter member, as I recall, though I can't remember who.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:18 AM on October 1, 2008


I seem to remember those Cold Warriors writing into nineties just cut and pasted 'Terrorist/Drug Dealer/Eco-Terrorist' for 'Russian' and carried on as before.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:40 AM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm just sour because I'm staring down the barrel of a 1st September 2009 deadline for a book set in 2022, and the fsckers just stole my biggest-criminal-caper-in-history and upsized it an order of magnitude.

(Meanwhile, back to work on Laundry novel #3 which thankfully doesn't suffer from the near future headache unless you really believe Cthulhu is coming back in four years time ...)
posted by cstross at 4:13 AM on October 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


cstross - get back to work - I want more laundry stories!
BTW - I really liked getting the little WoW short story bonus at the end of the James Bond one!
posted by bystander at 4:30 AM on October 1, 2008


second on the laundry stories. If anything you wrote deserves to be on tv, it's that!
posted by By The Grace of God at 5:06 AM on October 1, 2008


Charlie Stross in going slightly OTT shock!

1984 could pretty much be considered a classic of Alt History now, couldn’t it?

I'm pretty sure you can't make something retrospectively an alt history...

On that note though, it is interesting that Ken MacLeod deliberately set his recent near-future political SF novel The Execution Channel in an alt history in order to future proof it in the way Stross is discussing. It failed, of course, because it just disengaged it from the real world.
posted by ninebelow at 5:58 AM on October 1, 2008


I wouldn't say it failed, ninebelow. I thought he made a pretty interesting point about how the mechanics of the whole "War on Terror" thing might not just be a function of the present (this universe) Administration. That's something he couldn't have gotten across if he set the story in our timeline, could he?
I will say, however, that the ending of that book was distinctly unsatisfying. Too abrupt, to jarringly out of line with the rest of the near-future technology ^2 focus of the book.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:20 AM on October 1, 2008


“Would it have Taikonauts space-walking overhead while the chairman of the Federal Reserve is on his knees? Would it have more mobile phones than people, a revenant remilitarized Russia, and global warming?”

If it was Gibson? Yeah, probably. Plus cybernetic body mods. But yeah, even Gibson has said the wheels left the rails a bit ago.


Heh. Actually Gibson wrote a screenplay for an Aliens movie that involved the U.S.S.R in space. Just a few years before the USSR collapsed. He wrote on his blog that he thought it would always be there.
posted by delmoi at 6:53 AM on October 1, 2008


Why the italics on in space? You know they were there first, right?
posted by bonaldi at 7:05 AM on October 1, 2008


Heh, like Wendel I had I've also had an idea for a near-future sci-fi book, one I started writing in 1999, and revisited a few times. I wrote almost 40k words on the first version (which I worked on in 1999/2000) and started again and wrote probably I dunno 8, 9k words? I'm not sure

Anyway I don't know if it's just a part of getting older or what but lately I've been having more and more "future shock", not actual Future Shock (which applies to societies) but rather the breakdown of this mindset: To me "the future" was this sort of nebulous fantasy world, I was I suppose aware intellectually that a lot of that stuff was supposed to happen, but it just felt like some far away imaginary fantasy. But more and more lately I see stuff that belongs in that fantasy world in the real world, and it doesn't even seem out of place.

In other words the idea that the real world is gradually becoming more and more futuristic as we move into the future is obvious and yet each new confirmation of that fact is shocking.

Anyway, just enjoy this video of a Japanese robot snake swimming around.
posted by delmoi at 7:08 AM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


I thought he made a pretty interesting point about how the mechanics of the whole "War on Terror" thing might not just be a function of the present (this universe) Administration.

I thought it was an immense cop out designed to insulate him from having to write plausibly. Gore would be just as bad as Bush? Well, no. He is right that there are embedded power structures that do not change easily with an election but that doesn't mean that whoever is in charge is irrelevent. MacLeod's politics are endlessly contrarian and esoteric but his alt history just seems like a vehicle for smug anti-imperialism where all governments are as bad as each other but if we hold out long enough technology will allow us to magically realise the Seventies. In space.
posted by ninebelow at 7:34 AM on October 1, 2008


This is seriously the most fantastic cop out I have ever read for having only had, and presuming to never again have more than, one idea.
posted by shownomercy at 8:28 AM on October 1, 2008


Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intesify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. "If this goes on, this is what will happen." A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses for purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost invetitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation....

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist's business is lying. -Ursula K. Le Guin, 1969
The primary difference between science fiction and fantasy these days is that fantasy authors and fans wank about folklore, history, Jung, and Freud while science fiction authors and fans wank about economics, political science, biology and physics.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:31 AM on October 1, 2008


I mean, if you are going to do near-future science fiction, you might as well go big. Aliens make first contact with Earth, and pass down a mandate for ecological sustainability, or else Earth and its population will be sold for scrap. Magic comes back into the world, creating chaos. A character becomes unstuck in time. The population of the Earth is decimated by a nuclear war, but is saved by a man whose dreams become reality. Our reality is a simulation created by artificial intelligence created to destroy us. A guy wakes up to find that his home planet has been scheduled for demolition, on a Thursday. A bar, just off the interstate somewhere in the east coast, attracts aliens, time travelers, and a talking dog.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:55 AM on October 1, 2008


The link about the Near Future SF Uncanny Valley turns into a bit of an attack on MacCleod about a third of the way in, which me feel at bit bad about havibng linked it. On the other hand everything he's written since the (amazing) Fall Revolution books has been painfully bad as far as I'm concerned, so maybe it's spot on.
posted by Artw at 8:57 AM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Well, yes, but if you happen to set your story the week after next and then on tuesday the internet comes alive or the united states fragments along civil war lines it still makes it look a little silly, yes?
posted by Artw at 9:08 AM on October 1, 2008


unless you really believe Cthulhu is coming back in four years time

At this point, I'm just wondering who the Republicans will pick as his running mate.
posted by roystgnr at 9:21 AM on October 1, 2008 [6 favorites]


2012! Nevah Forget!
posted by Artw at 9:28 AM on October 1, 2008


Artw: Well, yes, but if you happen to set your story the week after next and then on tuesday the internet comes alive or the united states fragments along civil war lines it still makes it look a little silly, yes?

I don't know. Slaughterhouse-Five and Memoirs Found in a Bathtub are still good reads without having nailed many predictions regarding politics. Actually, Lem's surreal criticism of paranoid party groupthink is still relevant given recent revelations at the US Department of Justice. Clarke's 2001 and 2010 still work when read as novels about human beings confronting a vast and amazing universe, even though the Soviet Union no longer exist, China is still years away from manned planetary missions, and artificial intelligence is more likely to be an autistic savant rather than HAL. Asimov's robot stories get the computer science pretty much completely wrong (reasonable for 1941, less reasonable for the 1980s), which doesn't matter because they are not really stories about computer science, they are stories about ethics. 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a rollicking good adventure yarn even though submarines have not quite lived up to Verne's romantic ideals.

I don't see how changing politics and history are more challenging to a fiction novel (or movie) set next week as opposed to a fiction novel set last week. All fiction requires suspension of disbelief, and a technological singularity is no more, and no less a nutty plot device than Hogwarts, a gentleman criminalist, or a renaissance prince in medieval Denmark.

The trick to science fiction isn't in creating credible science. The trick is in creating credible characters, whose experiences with impossible events get us to suspend disbelief while we hold the novel in our hands.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:06 PM on October 1, 2008 [5 favorites]


I see what Stross is saying, but I'm not sure it's as important as he thinks. Say he writes a book set in the 2022 involving political intrigue between the USA and the EU. Then from 2014-2020 the EU breaks up into separate countries again. Does his book now suddenly suck? Only if it the book was nothing more than a political screed about what policies the EU ought to pursue, in which case it already sucked.

Ken Macleod's Fall Revolution books, which are very heavy on political extrapolation, have (I think) already been "invalidated" by current events, but they still rock as much now as they did when they were written.

I just checked CStross's Saturn's Children out of the library yesterday.

Anyone else considering this might want to bring a plain brown paper bag with them to the library. Most Embarrassing SF Cover I've held in my hands for a long time.

everything [Macleod] written since the (amazing) Fall Revolution books has been painfully bad as far as I'm concerned

I'll agree that the Fall Revolution books are his best, but Newton's Wake was a lot of fun. And even the Execution Channel, while not a very good book, was worth it for me just for the virtuoso demonstration of why torture is useless. As well as this passage which, unfortunately, keeps coming back to me:

Out of the water Bass Rock loomed, and far beyond it a skyline row of cliffs. Volcanic plug, sedimentary rock: somewhere farther along the ragged curve of this coast was Siccar Point, in whose folded strata James Hutton had discovered the depth of time, the first unconformity between science and the Bible. The same Bible had been the solid ground, the rock, for the Covenanter preachers condemned to that basalt pyramid — Scotland’s Alcatraz, its Robben Island — the Book whose savory verses they had screamed while James the Second and Seventh had supervised, with an interest perhaps more than forensic, the crushing of their thumbs and the splitting of their shins.

Tears sprang to her eyes, as they always did when the thought struck her that that particular prerogative was back: the right of the sovereign to condemn, to put to the question, without due process and for reasons of state; that on that sore point all the Revolutions in Britain and America had been for nothing. That America had been for nothing.

posted by straight at 12:31 PM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


At this point, I'm just wondering who the Republicans will pick as his running mate.

Sarah-Paliggurath, Iä! Iä!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:51 PM on October 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


"The trick is in creating credible characters..."

Yeah, 2nded. (Not that I'm Joe Writer but) - seems like the lament is a bit like political comics saying they've got nothing when stuff turns. In terms of story - I think you can get away with writing anything so long as the premise is believable and the story is sound.
Being topical seems more like a novelty and a way to foster sales.
Not that eating isn't, y'know, fun.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:12 PM on October 1, 2008


Mike Brotherton, author of books like SPIDER STAR (which is actually pretty good) responded to Charlie on his Brotherton's blog. The first line?

This is total bullshit.

Brotherton basically says what I said in this thread, only at greater length and more rudely.
posted by Justinian at 7:21 PM on October 1, 2008


his Brotherton's blog? What-ever, me.
posted by Justinian at 7:21 PM on October 1, 2008


Justinian:

That's an interesting...I wouldn't call it rebuttal, really. They're talking about two different goals that SF writers can aim at, I think.

In the meantime, just in the spirit of unexpectedness snow is falling on Mars.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:18 AM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


What is near-future SF?

In my view, near-future SF isn't SF set n years in the future. Rather, it's SF that connects to the reader's life: SF about times we, personally, can conceive of living through (barring illness or old age). It's SF that delivers a powerful message — this is where you are going. As such, it's almost the diametric opposite of a utopian work; utopias are an unattainable perfection, but good near-future SF strive for realism.

Orwell's 1984 wasn't written as near-future SF, even though he wrote it in 1948, a mere 36 years out: it explicitly posits a global dislocation, a nuclear war and a total upheaval, between the world inhabited by Orwell's readers and the world of Winston Smith. You can't get there from here, because it's a parable and a dystopian warning: the world of Ingsoc is not for you.

posted by Artw at 9:23 AM on October 2, 2008


Technothrillers are also mentioned, which would be yer Jules Verne submarine stuff.
posted by Artw at 9:24 AM on October 2, 2008


Anyway, just enjoy this video of a Japanese robot snake swimming around.

And this Firefighting Snake Robot.
posted by homunculus at 10:35 AM on October 7, 2008


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