Thu
Jun 14 2012 9:00am

Time Travel and the Black Death: Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book (1992) is Connie Willis’s second novel and the book where she got everything right. I read it when it was first published, and I bought a U.K. paperback as soon as one was available and I’ve been re-reading it frequently ever since, often at Christmas, as it’s set at Christmas.

This is a story about infectious diseases, history and caritas. It is set in two epidemics in two time periods, an influenza epidemic in 2054 and the Black Death in 1348, and the two stories alternate, the future time worrying about Kivrin, the student trapped in the wrong part of the past, while Kivrin back in 1348 is trying to cope and learn and help. The plot ratchets, going forward in both time periods in turn, until they come together again at the end. The characters all work, what happens to them hurts, and the whole thing is utterly unputdownable even after multiple re-reads. I expect to be coming back to this book and enjoying it for my whole life. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it, and I am now going to discuss it in detail, with spoilers, beyond the cut.

I have heard Doomsday Book called a tragedy, especially in opposition to To Say Nothing of the Dog, which really is a comedy. Shakespeare’s plays get divided into comedies, tragedies, histories and “problems,” and Doomsday Book is a history, or possibly a problem. It has sad moments and funny moments, and certainly a lot of people die, but our protagonists survive and are successful. It has a eucatastrophic ending that is perfectly satisfying. You would think that a book with two epidemics would be a “man against nature” story, but while certainly the influenza and the Black Death can be seen as antagonists in a plot sense, the actual story here is “man learns lesson.”

One of the ways Willis makes the whole book work is the way that the influenza epidemic in the future section starts immediately while the revelation of mistake and the horrors of the Black Death come after Kivrin, and the reader, has had time to understand and care about the people in the past. Along with Kivrin, we learn them as real and with their own concerns — Rosemond’s worrying engagement to a much older man, Gawyn’s fatal love for Eliwys, Imeyne’s petty snobbery and constant carping. We see their kindness to Kivrin and we see the details of their lives before they start to die. And then we endure their deaths with Kivrin. One of the most effective parts of the book is where Kivrin starts to count deaths — she knows the Black Death killed “a third to a half” of Europe, and she thinks it will kill a third, or at most half, of the village. That kind of statistical thinking has no place in reality, and Willis wants us to be sure that this is reality. Statistics and probabilities are relentlessly mocked throughout the book. The lesson Kivrin learns is that history is real, what “a third to a half of Europe” really means, and that everyone through all of time is a person.

I used the Latin word “caritas” above when I was saying what the book was about. I used it instead of either of its usual translations, “charity” and “love”, because both of them have specific meanings in English that aren’t what Willis is interested in here. “Charity” in English has come to mean giving money to organizations that do good so exclusively that any other meanings are hard to reach. As for “love,” while we do talk about kinds of love other than romance, we mean romance so often that we need to distinguish them as “mother love” or whatever. It’s interesting that Willis here avoids romance completely and shows mother love in a very negative light, while showing us pretty much every other form of loving human relationship.

Kivrin is everyman, er, everygirl. She’s a very typical Willis character: she’s geeky and plucky and hardworking and unromantic. She’s determind to get to the past, and she’s delighted with it once she recovers from her influenza. Kivrin thinks about the people around her in the past, and when she thinks of the future she has left, she thinks of her teachers. She also thinks about God. She doesn’t think about a romantic partner, and she doesn’t think about her parents, though she must have some, or have had some. She never thinks of her childhood, even when dealing with children. She exists as Medieval Student only. But she’s very easy to identify with, we see her in first person in her reports as well as in third person. 

Through Kivrin we are shown loving friendship and that most unusual love, the love of an adult for somebody else’s children. This is all through Doomsday Book, and yet how rare it is in the whole of the rest of literature! Kivrin loves Rosemond and Agnes, Mr Dunworthy loves Kivrin and Colin. There’s no hint of romance, or even the usual kind of parental substitution, nor are the children little angels — they are deftly characterised and real. Agnes whines and Rosemond puts on airs and Colin sucks gobstoppers and evades authority. Yet unloveable as they are, the older characters love them, and the reader also comes to care for them.

Mary Ahrens, one of the best characters in the novel, loves Colin who is her great-nephew. How often do we see aunts, let along great aunts, and how often do we see them when they’re not being played for laughs? She’s exactly the kind of character we so rarely see in fiction — an older woman, unmarried, professional, with connections to her family, with close friends. She dies, of course. Mary Ahrens is a doctor, and as well as loving her great-nephew and her friends she also loves humanity and lays down her life caring for them in the epidemic. In this she’s contrasted directly with Kivrin, who survives with everyone dying around her — Mary dies, while saving almost everyone.

They are both, in their own way, shown to be saintly. Father Roche, who saw Kivrin arrive from the future, specifically believes she is a saint sent by God to help them — and he gets what he thinks is confirmation when he asks for her confession when she is feverish and she tells him she has not sinned. From the text’s point of view, it’s by no means sure that he’s wrong. Kivrin is very human and fallible, and yet she is saintlike and what she does is more than many people would do, or did do. Yet if God has sent her, through the mistake of feverish Badri and the folds of time, he has sent her to do no more than help people die with dignity and learn a lesson. Through Mary’s work in the future and Kivrin’s in the past we may see the operation of Grace and of God’s love — and for those who believe in Christianity this may work better. It leaves me with teeth gritting questions about theodicy.

It’s probably worth noting in this context that everyone in this book in both time periods attends church. I didn’t notice this as unusual at first, because it is Christmas, which is one of the few times British people might go to church, but it’s quite clear if you pay attention that Dunworthy, Kivrin, Mary and the other modern characters are regular churchgoers. Badri Chaudhuri, the time travel technician who is the first to fall sick with influenza, is explicitly identified as “Church of England.” There has obviously been a religious revival and people have started going to church in the U.K. as they do in the U.S. — it would be plausible for any one of them to be a churchgoer, very strange for them all to be. But social change happens; a hundred years ago they’d have all gone to church—who can say about sixty years from when the book was written?

Our other central character, the protagonist of the future strand, is Mr Dunworthy. He never gets a first name. He’s a don, a history professor, unmarried and not in any romantic relationships. He has close friends, he has students, he has colleagues, and he cares for history and time travel more than anything. He doesn’t want Kivrin to go into the fourteenth century because it’s too dangerous, and he worries about her constantly — with good cause, as it turns out. We see his love for his friends, for his students, and his relationship with Kivrin is specifically compared on several occasions to God and Jesus — clearly she is an alter ego. And Kivrin prays to him when feverish. He’s an older man who takes in a waif — Colin — who is harassed by bureaucracy, though he has an able secretary who takes care of everything — Finch — and who sets everything right in the end, at least for the characters who are still alive. He appears in a number of other Willis novels in the Oxford Time Travel universe.

If Kivrin’s an everyman with whom the reader is intended to identify, Dunworthy is very much a specific himself, paternal, worried, impatient with incompetence, as kind as he can be in the circumstances, which are perpetually too much for him. Everything in the book is seen through either Kivrin or Dunworthy.

We have parental figures, in Dunworthy and Mary, but real parents are represented by Colin’s neglectful mother and William Gaddson’s overprotective one. Colin’s mother, Mary’s niece Deirdre, has sent him away at Christmas, which is the one time in Britain when everyone is with their family — there’s no Thanksgiving to dilute that the way there is in the U.S.. Deirdre has sent him away so she can be with her “new live-in,” a romantic partner. Colin waits for the gifts she is sending, he clearly wants them as proof of her love, but Mary casually mentions that last time (this is not the first time he has been sent to Mary for Christmas) the gifts didn’t arrive until Epiphany, twelve days late. She doesn’t come for Mary’s funeral, which Colin has to cope with alone, because Dunworthy is sick. She doesn’t retrieve Colin afterwards even when quarantine is lifted. She’s a horrible mother.

Mrs Gaddson is at the other extreme, an almost Dickensian caricature, absolutely appalling and larger than life, the overprotective mother from hell who reads gloomy bits of the bible to patients in the hospital. She’s come to Oxford not to help but to make everything worse — though that’s unfair. It isn’t malice (you rarely meet real malice in Willis), it’s her own nature. Her son only wants to get away from her. She’s an even worse mother than the neglectful Deirdre.

In 1348, Imeyne cares so little for her daughter-in-law and grandchildren that she summons not only Sir Blouet and his family, but a plague-stricken priest who infects them all. Even without that she’s constantly carping at them. Eliwys loves her children, but she’s helpless to help them even from every day hurts — and she has the palest characterisation of all the family.

While mother love fares badly, romance fares even worse. William Gaddson is our only example of romantic love. Half the girls in Oxford are in love with him and planning to marry him, and this is a kind of running joke. William is always turning up with useful girls — girl technicians and nurses, whatever Dunworthy requires. They don’t know about each other, and never find out, he’s clearly so used to deceiving his mother that deceiving half the girls in Oxford is childsplay. Apart from William and his changing parade of women, all we have for romantic love is Gawyn, pining for Eliwys, and her using that love to send him to fetch her husband. He never returns. Sir Blouet’s engagement to Rosemond — who is thirteen to his forty — is horrible, and both Rosemond and Kivrin see it as horrible.

We have here a community of celibate academics. This isn’t a requirement — Oxford dons have been allowed to marry for quite some time. Even female dons could marry well before 1992 — and in any case, we don’t see any female dons except the visiting American archaeologist, Lupe Montoya. We just have a group of people who happen to be academics and happen to be celibate.

In 1348, the priest Father Roche does need to be celibate, and is, and is shown as ideal — talking to God the way Kivrin talks into her “corder,” dealing well with everyone, although he has no education, thinking well of everyone. He’s the saintliest character in the book, and he dies, and perhaps God did send Kivrin to him to help him in his last days.

What we’re shown positively and from many directions all through the book is caritas, disinterested love, love of humanity, of friends and other people’s children. Roche shows caritas, Mary does, Kivrin learns it.

I talked about the themes that run through Willis’s work. History, yes, lots here, and the reality of people in history is foregrounded. Telephones, oh yes, and missed messages and messages gone astray. Colin waiting for the post to bring presents, Dunworthy trying to call Basingame, trying to call Andrews, Montoya trying to call Basingame and Dunworthy, the bellringers, the nurse writing down what Badri says in his delirium. And again, there are no real antagonists in this book. Gilchrist and Latimer, who have opened up the medieval period while the head of department is away, and who rush Kivrin through, are wrong, but not malicious. Imeyne with her suspicion of Kivrin is definitely a force for tension. But there’s no violence here and no villains, the antagonists are nature (the plagues), ignorance, and miscommunication. Even Gilchrist’s shutting down the net isn’t the disaster it seems at first—Badri has made a back-up.

Bells are a motif, from the mechanical carrillon playing to shoppers in the streets to the visiting bellringers and the peal they want to ring, and then the bells tolling for the dead.

It’s easy to point out things that are wrong with Doomsday Book, from the lack of call-waiting (or even answering machines) in 2054 to the snow-ploughed road in 1348. Indeed, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. The thing is that these things don’t matter, because the book has, as Roberts himself acknowledges, “real emotional heft” and they’re just nitpicking. It’s just as easy to point to details she gets right — the language being completely incomprehensible at first, despite having studied it, Colin taking aspirin into the past because he knows it’s been around forever.

Her themes and her plot come together here to make a vastly readable and most unusual book.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo nominated and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

29 comments
Patricia Mathews
1. Patricia Mathews
It occurred to me while reading the part about no call waiting, that this and the universal churchgoing of 2054 might both be the results of a minor civilization crash (or very, very bad crisis) between now and then, causing a large cultural change. The only problem with that is, that it would have to be the crisis we're in now, gone totally amok. Hmmm...

Maybe Willis should have set the future part a century later than she did?
James Burbidge
2. jsburbidge
My theory covering the differences between the 2054 we're given and the 2054 we would expect (driven, I grant you, more by the conclusion of TSNOTD and all of Blackout/All Clear than by Doomsday Book) is that the whole time-travel universe is an alternate history. Their timeline looks a lot like ours, but there are subtle divergences caused by the meddling that the net not only allows the travellers to do but effectively pushes them into doing.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
JSBurbridge, Patricia: Willis has been clear about her dislike for alternate history -- even though, yes, at this point that universe is one. St Paul's wasn't destroyed by Communist terrorists with a pinpoint bomb in 2002. But there has been a collapse of civilization, sort of, in the Pandemic, which killed a lot of people. There's a hint in Blackout that it might have been caused by cellphones and led to a revulsion against them, which I actually think is a nifty way of dealing with the issue.

But I don't think it's fair or reasonable to blame Willis for time and tech that has happened since she wrote -- it's just that they did have answering machines even in Britain in 1992. I didn't have call waiting (actually I still don't) but offices did, and even I had an answering machine and didn't have to ask passing bellringers to wait in my room to take calls when I went out.
Patricia Mathews
4. BumbleBob
It's one of my top books! I, also, re-read at Christmas and my copy is getting worn and torn with wear. Willis's portrayal of 1348 is so vivid that the characters come alive for me.
Patricia Mathews
5. DontGetIt
I've tried three times to read/listen to this book and failed miserably. I can't comprehend how this won the Hugo. I find it incredibly tedious and dull with so much repetition and false suspense. I literally turned my iPod off during a run and preferred silence to continuing on..
Patricia Mathews
6. James Davis Nicoll
It seemed to me in 1992 that Willis' research into life in the UK probably consisted of flipping through Wodehouse and Christie and the reason her UK is archaic even by the standards of the backward 1990s is because her source material is.

As the Blackout/All Clear fiasco showed, research is not really her forte.
Patricia Mathews
7. seth e.
I think I said in the Hugo re-read thread, when Connie Willis came up, that she's always struck me as a writer who does just enough research to support the story she's already decided to write, and then stops before any unsightly facts can intrude. In the case of her time-travel stories, it seems that story she wants to tell is about the England she's read in books, as James says--not even 30's England, but Edwardian England as remembered by 30's writers.

That said, I read The Doomsday Book in a single six-hour sitting, and was hugely moved by it. The growing sense of creeping desperation in both the past and the future are the heart of the book, and extremely well done. And she's very good at writing highly believable children, which makes the things that happen to them all the more affecting, and Willis is unafraid to have things happen to them.

One of the details I've always remembered--I've never re-read the book--is that Agnes, the 5-year-old in the past, has a wooden knight and a wooden cart, and the cart is the one she adopts as a special friend, named Cart. It's a perfect little touch.
Patricia Mathews
8. Lektu
"Kivrin is very human and fallible, and yet she is saintlike and what she does is more than many people would do, or did do."

Just count the number of times she's called saint-like in "Fire Watch"...
Fredrik Coulter
9. fcoulter
I remember this year was the year my wife almost came to blows on the Hugo ballot. I pushed for A Deepness in the Sky while she pushed for Doomsday Book. It's not that either of us really thought one of the books was better than the other, just that our tastes diverged.

This was a really good Hugo year, and the tied ballot was the best of all possible results.
Patricia Mathews
10. LizardBreath
This drove me nuts. I couldn't get past the implausibility that time travel to the fourteenth century is brand new (I read the book ages ago -- is Kivrin the first person, or just the first researcher to go back then?) and they're sending an underprepared grad student alone with no one competent supervising the drop back home. I know the plot was supposed to work because everyone who should have been handling things got sick, which is why all the chaos got started, but for a completely non-routine, first-time ever, wildly important trip, there was a really implausible lack of organization and backup. You should have needed to bring down a lot more people to get that level of mess.

The Pandemic in the past/little epidemic in the book thing also drove me nuts as implausible. The Pandemic is fine -- some devastating worldwide disease, sure, it's an SF book and she gets to write the history she does. That it might leave social patterns in place where quarantine would slam down at any odd symptom, also fine. But odd viruses that hospitalize that large a percentage of the healthy population are really, really unusual -- the virus in the book seems to be Spanish Flu-class or worse, and really, with modern medicine and sanitation, I don't think Spanish Flu would hit that hard and fast.

If there were some assertion in the book that there was a common cause, that epidemics just happened all the time in the time of the book, I'd work with that. But the 'no, just a funny coincidence that this implausibly virulent virus hit at the right time to disrupt Kivrin's trip' seemed like really cheap plotting.

Page by page, I thought it was well written, I enjoyed the characters, and all that. But the structure and plot made me want to hurl it across the room.
Patricia Mathews
11. James Bradford DeLong
Your protagonists may have survived and been successful.

My protagonist died.
Rob Munnelly
12. RobMRobM
This was my introduction to Willis and I loved it. The problem is that I then read "To Say Nothing" and was struck by the sharp contrast between diligent Dunsworthy here and ridiculously negligent Dunsworthy there (sending overtired historians to the past to get a piece of sculpture), which interfered with my enjoyment of the latter.
Fade Manley
13. fadeaccompli
This book and Passage are my favorite Connie Willis books, and it's probably no coincidence that they're both ones that deal directly and intimately with death. How it happens, what it means, what it does to the people around. (Oddly enough, the next thing I can think of that deals with death so beautifully and gracefully and repeatedly is a manga written for teenagers, Twin Spica.)

There are an awful lot of brilliant books out there about coming out ahead, and an awful lot of brilliant books about coming to tragic endings. But these two are the best I know of for dealing with the flip side of the tragedy: what happens all around it.
Patricia Mathews
14. A Ray
I loved this book. I cried when Rosemond and Mary died, cried even harder reading Roche's death scene and wept like a child when Kivrin reunited with Dunworthy.

So...yeah. I think that sums up how I feel about the Doomsday Book.
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
Lizardbreath: The flu in the future time came from the tomb of the knight who died in 1517 that Montoya is excavating as part of the same project as sending Kivrin to the past. So it's not unrelated.
Patricia Mathews
16. TG12
This book is one of the first examples that I reach for whenever the old "SF fans' tastes can really, really differ!" discussion comes up, because man, I sure disliked this book, and to this day have a hard time seeing how it tied with _A Fire Upon The Deep_ for that year's Hugo.

And yet, people of intelligence and taste continue to aver that they really love it....
Patricia Mathews
17. LizardBreath
It's not unrelated to the rest of the book, but it's still wildly implausible. In the real world we live in, have you ever heard of a virulent new strain of some disease emerging from an archeological dig? Me neither.

It's SF, Willis is allowed to make things up, but this gets under my skin because it's not treated as something that's different from the pre-1992 world, it's treated as a perfectly ordinary thing to happen. Unusual, but unusual like an earthquake, not unusual like a unicorn. And while it's not impossible, just implausible, it still seems closer to the unicorn end of the scale than the earthquake end.
Joel Cunningham
18. jec81
My problem with her use of telephone confusion is that it always strikes me as a plot device rather than thematically relevant. It makes the books seem padded, because an entire scene in the future will consist of Dunworthy trying to talk to someone and failing, and then the next time we visit him, nothing has changed and he's still trying. Wheel spinning upon wheel spinning. All of the Oxford books save TSNotD use this device constantly, and I honestly don't understand how anyone can enjoy reading it. I don't begrudge anyone's enjoyment, I just don't understand it -- I see the kernel of a good book, but the flaws!

Also there were totally cell phones in 1992. They weren't pocket phones but they existed for consumer use. The reference in Blackout struck me as a joke at the expense of all the people who complain about the problem in her other books.
Jonah Feldman
19. relogical
I'm afraid to read this again. I had a really bad reaction to Blackout/All Clear, and while I found Doomsday Book riveting at the time I read it, I can't really recall what was so compelling about it. I think I'd find it a lot more tedious and frustrating, but for what it's worth, I definitely did like it and still love TSNotD.
Kristen Templet
20. SF_Fangirl
I only read this book once. I wouldn't mind rereading it just to compare to what I remeber because in my memory the "modern" bits are different than Jo described. I don't remember it being set in 2053 because other than the the time travel the tech was 90s or even 80s. I have trouble believing that a pandemic would take that much of a modern society down especially 50 years in the future. Perhaps its because of all the bumbling and inability for any to communicate an important message (or maybe its mixing with TSNoTD), but I do not remember the "modern" parts as serious or tragic; although, I do remember one very sad modern death.

I do remember how powerful historical parts were, but in my mind the modern portion was so much weaker and were in the way of me finishing Kirvin's story.
Joel Cunningham
23. jec81
@SF_Fangirl: Your assessment of the modern parts is correct, except they ARE indeed set in 2053. Aside from time travel, pretty much all of the tech in '90s (or even not that advanced, since we did have cell phones in the '90s).

The future portion of the book eventually becomes somewhat seriosu and tragic, but it also involves a few hundred pages of conversations about bellringers and toilet paper. Jo provides interesting perspective -- the sadness of Colin's situation didn't strike me that hard when I read it -- but something about the style makes it hard for me to see the good bits.
Patricia Mathews
24. Petar Belic
After hearing the book won an award, I sought it out.

I really, really disliked this book. I almost put it down a couple of times but struggled on to the bitter end.

I could not believe that the 'future' sections were set in the 'future'.

I could not believe that missed phone calls in the future formed such an important part of the plot. The 'characters' seemed innefectual, stupid and completely uninteresting.

The section set in the past was entirely predictable (excuse the horrible pun), and I found it hard to empathise with anyone.

It seems poorly written (which I can overlook), and lazily thought out (which I can't).

I do not understand, to this day, how this novel represents the pinnacle of science fiction literature, vis-à-vis its Hugo win.
Patricia Mathews
25. Bob B.
This is truly one of my top five novels of SF . The other four are The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg, Galaxies like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany, and Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. These have remained my favorite for many years - though there are plenty of others snapping at their bookcovers.
Patricia Mathews
26. LizardBreath
I was thinking about what annoys me so much about this book, and I think maybe I feel a conflict between the style and the substance. Willis has a very lucid, low key, writing style, and that makes me expect a pretty high level of realism and plausibility. But the plot in the future part of the book is more like a bad dream: the loony casualness with which they send Kivrin back, the inability to contact anyone on the phone, the out-of-nowhere (or at least nowhere plausible) epidemic that makes the people with the necessary information unable to communicate, all the coincidence on coincidence that makes everything go wrong.

I'd accept that sort of bad-dream plotting if the writing were more dreamlike, but in Willis' very clear, realistic style it clangs horribly for me.
Patricia Mathews
27. S Muhlberger
LizardBreath had much the same reaction I did. Cambridge then as now must be full of books on the 14th century, and even original records and artifacts. But there is no hint that Time Travelers get any kind of systematic prep, even for a foray into a particularly dangerous part of,the past. You can't be an astronaut today w/ o years of training. Why is Kivrin so ignorant?
Jo Walton
28. bluejo
Kivrin isn't ignorant. This is a genuine problem for Blackout/All Clear where there characters know less than any random cat about WWII, but Kivrin has learned the languages, learned to milk a cow, and studied -- she knows a ton about England in 1320... and isn't expecting to end up in 1348, and still knows a reasonable bit about it. The things she doesn't know are things nobody knows, are genuine research.

The question of why you send a second year student as the first person into the C.14 is a different one, and it's answered by Basingame's absence and the temporary rushing nature of the opening of that century. This works well enough for me, but I can see it as a legitimate point of argument with the text. Kivrin's "ignorance" isn't.
Joel Cunningham
29. jec81
Indeed, Kivrin seemed pretty sharp to me. In fact, the most frustrating part of my reading was the period where she is delirious and can't figure out when or where she is and keeps hallucinating. It was effectively written, as far as that goes, but it went on way too long for me (STOP PASSING OUT!). I think it didn't help that the same thing was happening with Badri in the future.
Patricia Mathews
31. s Muhlberger
Kivrin may be smart and know important practical skills, but she also doesn't know basic facts available in any good academic library . Or from the kind of people we call historians today. People of that sort are pretty much missing from the story, as is their specialized knowledge.
Patricia Mathews
33. Annabeth
I know I'm way, way late to the party, but I have to strenuously disagree with the claim that there's little to no romantic love in this book. Perhaps because I first read this as a preteen, I was struck with a powerful and lasting impression of romantic love between Father Roche and Kivrin (unconsummated, but romantic nonetheless). The line I still remember from the book (and will never forget) is when Father Roche makes his dying confession, and says, "I had carnal thoughts about a saint of our lord." He's confessing his attraction to Kivrin, and the moment is all the more powerful because he chooses other types of love above this passion. The author's larger point, that other types of love are more Willis's focus, holds true here, since Father Roche and Kivrin ultimately set a different relationship. But I think it's important to notice the romantic potential that's present.

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