#RetroHugos1941 If This Goes On—, by Robert A. Heinlein

I read this as a teenager, and was hugely impressed by it. Growing up in the calcified conservative culture of Catholic Ulster, I felt a lot of sympathy for Heinlein's unsophisticated hero who realises gradually that those who claim to speak for God may actually be speaking for themselves, that a political reality can be deliberately constructed, and that girls are human beings too. Since the 1940 original text is eligible for next year's Retro Hugo for 1941, I returned to it with interest and a little trepidation. I must have been 15 or 16 when I first read it, two-thirds of my life ago; would it hold up?

And actually, yes it does. If anything, Heinlein's portrayal of a theocratic dictatorship ruling a dystopian future America seems a bit closer to the bone in 2015 than it did in 1983. (Though maybe that just reflects on my relative ignorance about the USA in the 1980s.) His thoughts about political messaging are pretty up to date as well, though of course the techniques turn out to be different. I was startled to read Ken MacLeod's assessment of Heinlein's importance to political SF in the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, but he was absolutely right; particularly here in the early stages of his career.

Bill Paterson's article on If This Goes On— for the Heinlein Society goes into some detail about the differences between the 55,000 word version of the story, revised in 1953, that we now have access to (in Revolt in 2100 and The Past Through Tomorrow) and the 33,000 word original. The biggest difference is that Sister Maggie, the most interesting character in the revised version of the story, appears to be largely absent from the original version, where our hero ends up with Sister Judith in an epilogue. There is also apparently much less about the Freemasons, and a couple of odd plot adjustments – Judith is horrified, not by the Prophet's sexual advances but by his cynical approach to taxation; and the victorious rebels decide to go for mass hypnotic reorientation of the formerly subject population rather than rejecting the idea as they do in the revised version.

I don't know how easy it will be to get hold of the 1940 text. A couple of things are clear to me, however. First, it's definitely a novella for Retro Hugo purposes; even if it was marketed at the time as a novel, the 2016 rules are clear that 40,000 words is the cutoff and it's a long way short of that. Second, without having read the 1940 version, but bearing in mind what Patterson says about the differences between it and the 1953 version, it's a pretty strong contender and is likely to get one of my own nominations in the Best Novella category. (NB that Jamie Todd Rubin has read the original and found the first half better than the second.)

More thoughts on the eligible short fiction of 1940 in due course.

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Saga, vol 4, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

This missed getting on the Hugo shortlist this year by a single vote, or rather because the Puppies nominated a completely crap webcomic about zombies and 26 people nominated Saga without specifying which volume they were voting for. Having said that, volume 3 (which I enjoyed) did make it to the list and duly came second to Ms Marvel. This volume takes the relationship between the protagonists in a new and not very happy direction, while at the same time showing us the weird dynastic dynamics among their enemies and setting up for further developments.

Among the list of potential Best Graphic Novel nominees on the , the next volume, vol 5, is third in both Goodreads and LibraryThing ownership, behind only Ms Marvel vol 2 and The Sculptor. I’ll get hold of it soon.

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Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

This is another brilliant collection of short stories by Canadian Nobel laureate Alice Munro, as usual grabbing you by the guts and concentrating character and plot into exquisitely distilled doses of everyday life. A lot of them seem to have been published first by the New Yorker and are still online there – I particularly commend Dimension and Free Radicals, which are both about death and murder but in very different ways. Well worth getting hold of.

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Links I found interesting for 13-11-2015

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Thursday reading

Current
Sleepyhead, by Mark Billingham
The Ill-Made Knight, by T.H. White
Somewhere! / هُناك , by Ibraheem Abbas
Oblivion, by Dave Stone

Last books finished – a long list, augmented by the fact that I had nearly finished several on Thursday, had a long journey Friday, and many of these are short books anyway
The Quantum Archangel, by Craig Hinton
Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories vol 2, eds. Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg
The Sculptor, by Scott McCloud
Axis, by Robert Charles Wilson
Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro
Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree, by Ernest Bramah
Saga Volume 4, by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples
The Clock Strikes Twelve And Other Stories, by H. Russell Wakefield
The Past Through Tomorrow, by Robert A. Heinlein (1940 stories only)
Kallocain, by Karin Boye
The Summer Before the Dark, by Doris Lessing
The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares
To the Slaughter, by Steve Cole

Last week’s audios
Welcome to Night Vale eps 76-77
Terror of the Sontarans

Next books
The Oxford Book of Christmas Stories, ed. Dennis Pepper
Dodger, by Terry Pratchett

Books acquired in last week
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by Kai Ashante Wilson
Witches of Lychford, by Paul Cornell
Sunset Mantle, by Alter S. Reiss
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor
Speak Easy, by Catherynne M. Valente
Bételgeuse, tome 3 : L’Expédition, by Leo

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Links I found interesting for 12-11-2015

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Axis, by Robert Charles Wilson

I really loved Spin, to which this is a sequel; in fact, Spin was the first Hugo winner that I actually voted for. Axis is not as good a book, but it’s still a good enough read; a complete change of central characters, pursuing a quest up the back country of an unknown parallel world, with a lot more emotional depth than you usually get in a two-fisted adventure tale. Took me ages to get around to reading it, but I am glad I finally did.

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Baron de Keverberg de Kessel and Mary Lodge

We took a couple of days off last week to go and explore Bruges (and saw while there, which was nice). There’s lots to see, and despite the early November rain it was still seething with tourists – God knows what it’s like in the high season. I don’t particularly recommend the Historium exhibition, an animatronic attempt to convey life in Bruges in 1435 to us modern grockles; I’ll stick with Dorothy Dunnett for my images of the fifteenth century. I did like the permanent Dali exhibition, including his illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. The Basilica of the Holy Blood was very William Morris, slightly to my surprise as I had been expecting something more medieval. In the St Salvator cathedral, my eye was particularly caught by Jac Bisschops’ contemporary Stations of the Cross, “De kruisweg van de verstilling”.

The major museum is the Groeningemuseum; I’m not actually a huge art connoisseur (as my successive postings here about the artist categories in the BSFA Awards and Hugos have probably made clear) but I loved a lot of things here, starting with Jan van Eyck’s The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele and ending with the pre-graphic novel woodcuts of Frans Masereel. But I was especially struck by the nineteenth century portraits; in the era just before photography, artists often managed to catch an inner truth which we struggle to get at with the camera.

In 1818, 23-year-old Mary Lodge, born in England, married the recently widowed Governor of West Flanders, Charles-Louis de Keverberg de Kessel, who had just turned 50. Their portraits, painted by Joseph-Fran&cced;ois Ducq, dominate one of the Groenigemuseum’s rooms.

I found this a tantalising pair of pictures. He looks, frankly, as if he’s already had a brandy too many before lunch, staring out of the portrait at us; she looks like a very smart young woman, her gaze cast aside – towards him, if his portrait was hung to the right of hers? Or were the portraits meant to face each other, given that she has her back to the garden and he to an interior wall? If the latter, it seems odd to have the couple looking in different directions.

I did a little more research. Baron de Keverberg, born in what is now Dutch Limburg, made himself very useful to successive regimes in the cockpit of Europe – he rose gracefully through the local administration of his home territory, first under Prussia, then under the French. Then Napoleon put him in charge of small bits of Germany from 1810 (and he married for the first time); and after the fall of the Empire (which coincided with the death of his first wife), the new Kingdom of the United Netherlands made him governor first of Antwerp and then West Flanders, giving him his title of Baron into the bargain.

I found it much more difficult to find out about the background of Mary Lodge. French Wikipedia thinks that she was born in Stonor, Oxfordshire; Dutch Wikipedia thinks she was from Rochdale, and Nederland’s adelsboek goes further and names her parents as John Lodge and Frances Croft. I found (and then lost) one online source saying that her father owned a textiles factory in Halifax. In any case, she seems to have been an orphan, staying in Bruges with her uncle, where she caught the Governor’s eye. He wrote a novel, Ursula, princesse britannique, inspired by her and the art of Memling. Perhaps the manuscript for the novel is among the papers he is proudly pointing to in his portrait. In hers, she is holding the published book open at the title page (it clearly says “D’Ursula”).

The year after their marriage, he was appointed to the Dutch government (as one of the officials in charge of Belgian affairs) and they moved to the Hague (where he originated the de Keverberg dilemma). They settled down and had four children, three of whom are recorded as having been born in Stonor, Oxfordshire – now the home of Jeremy Paxman; but is there therefore a connection with the Stonor family, also linked to the Blounts of Maple Durham, one of whom married my great aunt? The Baron’s political career was interrupted by the Belgian revolution of 1830, but he got back in the game and died an elder statesman in 1841 aged 73. She lived until 1879, almost four decades of widowhood, and died at the Keverberg family seat of Aldengoor. Her portrait is often cited as a key example of Regency fashion.

I found it an interesting if frustrating exercise to look into the background of these paintings. A lot of the Baron’s voice has been preserved for history, as he climbs the political pole while also positioning himself as a cultural guru; we get much less of Mary, whose role is that of his muse and future mother of his children. But she has a very interesting smile. I bet she was much more fun to know than him.

Links I found interesting for 11-11-2015

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The Sculptor, by Scott McCloud

Of the graphic stories listed on the , this is owned by more LibraryThing users than any other and is behind only Ms Marvel vol 2 on Goodreads. So I went out and got it. (Incidentally, I find the spreadsheet a lot more user-friendly in general than the impenetrable Wikia.)

I was aware that McCloud is well known as a comics critic and writer; his Wikipedia article suggests that this is the first actual graphic story he has published this century. If so, it was worth the wait; The Sculptor is a gripping fantasy about a young artist who does a deal with Death, to achieve fame and fortune at the cost of years of his own life. There are lots of allusions to other themes, particularly the many ways in which people express themselves, and a tragic love story running through the core of the plot. I thought it was a great example of the graphic novel, and if the other Hugo nominees are as good as this we are in for a treat.

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The Quantum Archangel, by Craig Hinton

A sequel to The Time Monster, featuring the Sixth Doctor, Mel and the Ainley!Master, and a host of other references to other Who stories, the epitome of “fanwank” (a term Hinton himself invented). Actually rather good fun, which is impressive given how awful the original story is, with a high point being the splintering of the narrative into various potential parallel realities where the history of the universe has worked out differently. Hinton also does a good job of capturing the Sixth Doctor. The Home Secretary has the same name as a prominent Doctor Who fan, but when I checked with her she thought it must be coincidence (because she was not yet prominent when this was written). Above average, I would say.

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Links I found interesting for 09-11-2015

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Family Britain, 1951-1957, by David Kynaston

This is the second volume of Tales of a New Jerusalem, a series of books pulling together the findings of Mass-Observation and various other sources to create a detailed, almost week-by-week popular history of Britain. (The first volume covers 1945-51, and the third 1957-59; Kynaston’s plan is to take it up to Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979.) It’s a tremendous piece of work, but I’ll stipulate up front that it has limitations – although the title references “Britain”, it’s mainly England, with some Wales and a very small amount of Scotland; Northern Ireland is mentioned precisely once.

Having said that, I still found it very interesting, and if you are English or particularly interested in England it will be fascinating. Particular highlights are Kynaston’s analysis of Fifties sexuality, both straight and gay (though I missed any reflection on how things might have been different during the War); his account of the political arguments around race (though here I would have liked to see some framing in terms of theory); his careful account of the major capital punishment cases (Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis

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Links I found interesting for 08-11-2015

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#RetroHugos1941 Slan, by A.E. van Vogt

A classic short sf novel of 1940, and one that will surely be in the running for next year’s Retro Hugos. Our two protagonists are slans with telepathic superpowers, running the gauntlet of the oppressive government of normal humans, aided only by powerful secret weaponry. It’s obviously a bit of a fable for fans of earlier days; now that geek culture has gone mainstream, I don’t think it resonates as much, and some of the social attitudes of the writing were already out of date by 1940. I suspect it has a good shot at the Retro Hugo, but not with my vote.

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The Dark Tower and Other Stories, by C.S. Lewis

A collection of stories by C.S. Lewis, including the time-travel story of the title. It’s not finished, but it would have been an interesting read – the Dark Tower itself turns out to be a replica of Cambridge University Library, built in an Othertime by people who our hero tries to understand. I think Lewis was probably better advised to go to Venus rather than take this route, but there are elements of the story that made it into That Hideous Strength. I see that there is some controversy about the extent to which Lewis’s literary executor Walter Hooper may have had a hand in the text; I didn’t detect anything that set off my alarm bells.

The other interesting fragment in the book is the very last one, about Helen’s return to Menelaus after the siege of Troy – only a few pages, but taking the stroy in a slightly different direction.

I had not realised that Lewis published two stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. One of these, “Ministering Angels”, is an awful pile of sexism, but the other, “Forms of Things Unknown”, struck me as rather good, as did the two other complete shorts, “The Shoddy Lands” and “The Man Born Blind”.

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Links I found interesting for 06-11-2015

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Thursday reading

Current
Axis, by Robert Charles Wilson
Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro
The Quantum Archangel, by Craig Hinton
The Sculptor, by Scott McCloud

Last books finished
The Dark Tower and Other Stories, by C.S. Lewis
Slan, by A.E. van Vogt
Family Britain, 1951-1957, by David Kynaston
The Ultimate Egoist, by Theodore Sturgeon (1940 stories only)

Last week’s audios
Welcome to Night Vale, eps 74-75

Next books
The Summer Before the Dark, by Doris Lessing
Saga Volume 4. by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples
To the Slaughter, by Steve Cole

Books acquired in last week
The Sculptor, by Scott McCloud
The Clock Strikes Twelve and other Stories, by H. Russell Wakefield
The Ultimate Egoist, vol. 1, by Theodore Sturgeon
Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree, by Ernest Bramah
Lethbridge-Stewart: Beast of Fang Rock, by Andy Frankham-Allen, based on a story by Terrance Dicks
Even Dogs in the Wild, by Ian Rankin
The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Kallocain, by Karin Boye
Waiting for Elizabeth: Love and Hate in Tudor Ireland, by Joan Rosier-Jones
Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories vol 2, eds. Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg

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A Star Chamber Court in Ireland: The Court of Castle Chamber, 1571-1641, by Jon G. Crawford

A rather specialised topic, looking at one specific part of the Irish political/legal system and its role in the conquest of Ireland. The Court of Castle Chamber was effectively the Irish Privy Council sitting as a judicial rather than political body; it came into being in the middle of the Elizabethan period, and was scrapped along with much else when war broke out in 1641. It became particularly notorious in Irish history as an instrument of political enforcement, both by the zealous Sir Arthur Chichester in the first years of James I’s reign, and by Wentworth/Strafford in the 1630s. I was of course particularly interested because my ancestor and namesake was a key figure in the Court’s early years, becoming Master of the Rolls the year after it was established and attempting to guide it as an instrument for establishing the rule of (English) law throughout as much of the island as possible. It’s very detailed, and if I ever get around to working on the biography I some day hope to write, this will be an important source.

Three thoughts that it sparked: first, a frustrating omission is that Crawford doesn’t explain the overall structure of the judicial system in Ireland, or how it compared to the English model that it was to an extent copying. This leaves the lay reader a little at sea – it’s obvious enough that the Court of Castle Chamber was the most important piece of the legal jigsaw puzzle, but one gets very little sense of the number and size of the other pieces.

Second, I deal with countries today which struggle with the rule of law, where courts have basically always been an extension of the executive branch of government, and the notion that judges might make important rulings that are based on legal principle rather than what the Prime Minister wants is naive at best. But it’s actually really important that courts should be independent and work on clear legal principles, and that they should occasionally come to decisions that are inconvenient for the government of the day (the Irish Court of Castle Chamber is not a good example here). For citizens inside the country, the legal system is ideally a protection against government rather than another manifestation of state power. For external investors, it’s more straightforward to pay lawyers to get as good a result as possible within the rules than to bribe officials until you get the right outcome. Those of us who live in countries where the rule of law actually does apply sometimes don’t appreciate its importance.

Third, one particular incident from early in the Court’s existence struck me as particularly important. In 1582, the Chief Justice, Nicholas Nugent, was suspended from office and then tried for treason, on the grounds that he had supported two of his nephews involved in the 1580 Baltinglass rebellion. Treason trials required two witnesses for the prosecution; in this case there was only one. Nugent’s nephews were safely in prison and were not executed (one died in prison years later, the other was pardoned). The Court of Castle Chamber got deeply entwined in the conduct of the jury trial to ensure the right outcome, which was that Nugent was swiftly found guilty and executed. It was a display of lethal executive power against a leading member of the judiciary, and it worked; and in restrospect it was a precursor to the use of the Court as an instrument of oppression in the following century.

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Links I found interesting for 04-11-2015

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Walking to Babylon by Kate Orman

This was the very first Bernice Summerfield novel I read, long long ago, and then a few years back I then really enjoyed the Big Finish audio adaptation guest-starring Elisabeth Sladen as a Babylonian priestess. I realise now that it’s also partly a homage to Iain M. Banks: the story is about a far-future civilisation, the People (a pretty direct copy of the Culture), two of whom take it into their heads to go to ancient Babylon, with potentially catastrophic results. An archeologist from 1901 gets swept up into Benny’s mission with unexpected consequences. I really enjoyed it when I read it effectively as a standalone novel back in 2002, and I enjoyed it even more now.

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Links I found interesting for 03-11-2015

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The Deadstone Memorial, by Trevor Baxendale

This is one of those Who novels that could have made a good TV episode – indeed, it possibly did, with the central theme of children's nightmares becoming reality used twice that I can remember in New Who (Fear Her and Night Terrors). There's also a zombie character from the seventeenth century. It's solid stuff, well-written, giving the Doctor, companions Fitz and Trix, and the various incidental characters plenty to do and doing it interestingly.

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Hugo-eligible short fiction Apr-Jun 2015: my first take

Following on from my previous post, and using the methodology explained here, I've read through the fiction output of Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Asimov's and Strange Horizons for the second quarter of this year in quest of stories to nominate for next year's Hugos. (I am also in principle reading Subterranean Press's output, but they don't seem to have published original fiction in those three months.)

I wasn't as blown away in general by what I read in this round. Perhaps I was just in a bad mood, but two Tor.com stories in particular which have had a lot of love elsewhere, "The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn", by Usman Malik, and "Waters of Versailles", by Kelly Robson, didn't push my buttons. I felt the first was not convincing on Pakistan or plot, and the second was surely done better by Vonda McIntyre in The Moon and the Sun. The story I liked from Tor.com from this period was "Ambiguity Machines: An Examination", by Vandana Singh, which goes on my long-list.

Clarkesworld also failed to really engage my enthusiasm. Again, I'll note that "For the Love of Sylvia City", by Andrea M. Pawley, and "Forestspirit, Forestspirit, by" Bogi Takacs, have got fans elsewhere but didn't quite grab me. The one story I'd consider nominating from issues 103-105 is the very first, "The Empress in Her Glory", by Robert Reed, which seemed to me to take Childhood's End in a new direction. On the other hand, that same issue had a story by an author who I'm simply not going to read, and issue 104 had a story about a cute anthropomorphic robot, one of my least favourite tropes.

There are only two issues of Asimov's to consider here, April/May being a double, but I found it by far the best hunting ground. Again, the very first story, "The New Mother", by Eugene Fischer really impressed me, and I'm a bit surprised not to see it more widely recommended (other than by Amal El-Mohtar). From the same issue, I liked "Willing Flesh", by Jay O'Connell which hit a sore spot for me, and from the June issue I liked the musical story "Our Lady of the Open Road", by Sarah Pinsker, though was not quite as convinced as some others are by "The End of the War", by Django Wexler.

Finally, Strange Horizons seemed to me to have had a three strong months. I was amused that it published two gay time-travel romance stories in succession, "Utrechtenaar", by Paul Evanby (1, 2) and "What We're Having", by Nathaniel Lee. The latter is very sweetly done (and also scratches my cookery itch) but I don't think I can nominate or vote for a story which is essentially about a magic saucepan. The former really impressed me with sense of place and time, and educated me about a historical event of which I was unaware. Among what seemed to me a strong line-up, I was also impressed with "Nine Thousand Hours", by Iona Sharma.

Score so far of stories I am considering for nomination:

Novellas
Allen M. Steele, "The Long Wait" (Asimov's, Jan 2015)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch "Inhuman Garbage" (Asimov's, Mar 2015)
Lois McMaster Bujold, Penric's Demon (Spectrum)
Eugene Fischer, "The New Mother" (Asimov's, Apr/May 2015)

Novelette
Eneasz Brodski, "Red Legacy" (Asimov's, Feb 2015)
Vandana Singh, "Ambiguity Machines: An Examination" (Tor.com, Apr 2015 – at 7800 words it just scrapes into this category)
Sarah Pinsker, "Our Lady of the Open Road" (Asimov's, Jun 2015)
Paul Evanby, "Utrechtenaar" (1, 2Strange Horizons, June 2015 – surprised to find it only 9,000 words)

Short Stories
L.S. Johnson, "Vacui Magia" (Strange Horizons, Jan 2015)
Kelly Robson, "The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill" (Clarkesworld, Feb 2015)
Nino Cipri, "The Shape of My Name" (Tor.com, Mar 2015)
Robert Reed, "The Empress in Her Glory" (Clarkesworld, Apr 2015)
Jay O'Connell, "Willing Flesh" (Asimov's, Apr/May 2015)
"Nine Thousand Hours", by Iona Sharma

Well, I'm half way through the year and have enough to fill one category and almost enough to fill each of the other two.

There are a few other recommendation sites out there; my approach so far has been to read the stories, then check back with Rocket Stack Rank, Ladybusiness and Laura "Tegan" Gjovaag to see what I may have missed. The last of these has a number of other useful links as well.

I'm going to take a break from 2015's short fiction now and read up on the offerings of 1940 for the Retro Hugos, following up on my recent posts on the eligible stories and their availability.

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