“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (1818)

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“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

“I’m reading Frankenstein at the moment,” I said over Thursday afternoon cocktails (because that’s the sort of life I have). My friend looked at me from over his Manhattan and said, “Boring, isn’t it?” I sighed. “Yes.”

“Thing is,” he explained. “You have to read it through the lens of Frankenstein’s own hubris. He is melodramatic and you’ve gotta go with that to make it tolerable.” Yes, not only is this history’s first science fiction novel, it’s also probably the first emo committed to paper. Frankenstein spends the vast majority of the book moping, hand-wringing, cursing the universe, sobbing and generally wallowing in despair, leading him to be rather an unpleasant and irritating hero.

Cultural osmosis is such that when people think of Frankenstein, and this includes myself, they tend to picture a spooky castle, a stormy night, the hunchbacked assistant Igor and the birth of the Creature. Turns out that this is entirely becuase of the films. The novel is a different beast altogether. There’s no Igor here, and Frankenstein certainly doesn’t appear to be living in a castle. He’s much younger than I anticipated too, having been not long out of university, not even completing his degree, so any title of “Doctor” is a misnomer too. The actual event of him reanimating the Creature feels almost “blink and you’ll miss it”. In fact, I’m loathe to say, I did. It was only when Frankenstein encounters his creation in the Alps later on that I realised his experiment had been a success. I had to go back and read the pages again and there, buried beneath more pages of crying scientist, is a short section where it’s noted that life was indeed created, but Frankenstein immediately freaked out and hid in his bedroom while the Creature fled.

The action is really three stories, each nested within one another. It opens with Captain Robert Walton sailing a ship to explore the North Pole. He is writing letters to his sister, and details that he and his men saw a large, humanoid figure piloting a dog sled across the ice. Not long after, they take on board the very ill Victor Frankenstein who then tells his story.

Frankenstein tells of his life and his scientific experiments. A lot of time his given over to his family life and history, so the science almost seems to become incidental to the story. His tale is interrupted in the middle when he meets the Creature again. The Creature then tells his story and explains that since he ran away he’s been living in a hovel next to a cottage of some poor people, learning to read and speak, and about the world, from their conversations. He demands of Frankenstein that he make him a wife to love, as he doesn’t want to be the one being in the world who is forbidden from having anyone to love.

The story then goes back to Frankenstein’s exploits and how he becomes haunted by the Creature and his plans to bring to life a bride for his creation. Eventually deciding that he doesn’t want to bring about anymore monsters, the Creature then begins to extract revenge and make his creator’s life a living hell. The story ends with Captain Walton writing to his sister again, telling her Frankenstein’s story.

The thing is, the bits that don’t involve Frankenstein are easily the best bits. The Creature has a wonderful way of speaking and is deeply insightful, but I have so many questions. How is it he has to learn about to read and write and speak all over again, when he was once living before? He knows nothing, which seems a bit bizarre to me, although given the whole nature of the novel, it seems odd to focus on something like that. Frankenstein himself isn’t a likeable man, I felt, and many academics have since claimed that he’s really just written to mock Lord Byron, who Shelley knew well. An overemotional drama queen who dropped out of education because he thought he knew better than everyone else, and hated when things didn’t go his way? Sounds about right.

I’m not sorry I read it, but my brief love affair with the classics has, possibly, come to a natural resting point again. It’s remarkable how little of the original novel has seeped into popular culture, but then I suppose that’s the power of film, and maybe this is one where, to get the real sense of drama and horror, it needs to be more visual.

Of course, in this case there is a version of Frankenstein that is definitely better than the book. Morecambe and Wise did it years ago with guest Ian Carmichael. The usual nonsense occurs, with Ian occasionally slipping into song, Eric convinced that he’s in a pantomime, and Ernie being the least terrifying incarnation of the monster ever. Take it away, boys:

“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller (1961)

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What’s the catch?

“It was love at first sight.”

In my ongoing mission to see if reading the classics makes me a better person, I come roaring down the runway to meet Catch-22, said to be, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the greatest American novels of the last century. Despite knowing it spawned a phrase from its title and that it featured army pilots, much else of the detail had escaped me.

Captain Yossarian is a pilot assigned to the Mediterranean island of Pianosa. He’s furious because people keep trying to kill him, which may have something to do with the fact it’s the height of the Second World War. He is desperate that he should return home alive but his officers keep upping the number of missions he has to complete before he can go. The only way out is to declare he’s crazy, but there’s a catch. Catch-22 in fact.

If he refuses to fly the missions, then he must be sane, so he has to fly them. If he accepts the missions, he’s obviously crazy because only a madman would want to fly during a war, and he doesn’t have to do them. That’s one hell of a catch. Surrounded by friends and enemies – some of whom are on the same side – Yossarian must find a way to keep his head while losing it and make it out of the war alive, without sacrificing another friend. But it’s not going to be as easy as that, as everyone is plotting to keep themselves safe too.

28-year-old Captain Yossarian is the main character and is determined to survive the war, eventually refusing to fly anymore, but it’s hard to say that there are any minor characters. Most chapters take the name of a character and show their involvement in the unfolding drama. The list of characters is enormous but includes: Colonel Cathcart (who continually raises the number of missions the men have to fly), Doc Daneeka (self-obsessed medical man), Milo Minderbinder (who is running a syndicate and only does things if they gain him a profit), Nately (who has fallen in love with a prostitute), Scheisskopf (who is obsessed with parades), Clevinger (who disappears on a flight one day), Major —— de Coverley (who is feared but rarely seen), Major Major (who can only be visited while he’s out of his office), General Dreedle (who is apathetic towards war unless the men fight and die on demand), Nurse Duckett (who sleeps with Yossarian), Hungry Joe (a pervert and photographer), Orr (a bomber pilot who always crashes), McWatt (who seems crazy because he has remained sane), Sergeant Towser (de facto head of the squadron),  and Chief White Halfoat (a Native American whose family had to keep moving because they always settled where oil was found). That’s barely half of them. It’s an amazing cast and everyone feels nicely sketched out and there aren’t any superfluous cast members. It’s just a task remembering who’s who and who outranks who else. I need a diagram.

The confusion of characters is compounded by the fact that the story doesn’t follow a strictly linear path, and jumps about in the timeline showing the same events from different angles. Personally, my favourite characters are Yossarian, Major Major and Chaplain Shipman, and would happily have taken a story just about those three.

A primary theme of the novel is paradox. Aside from the central one of being too mad to fly, every other page seems to contain someone making a statement and then saying the opposite immediately afterwards, either forming a joke or sometimes to highlight the insanity of the world they inhabit. Early on we see a character described as, “good-natured, generous and likeable. In three days no one could stand him.” Nately at one point declares, “Anything worth living for is worth dying for”, only to be told in return, “Everything worth dying for is certainly worth living for.” People adopt one another’s personas and illnesses in hospital to confound doctors and keep themselves in there longer and away from the planes they have to fly. The world here is a complicated mess where people are brought up against their superiors for not doing things, mediocrity is applauded and dead people are thought to be alive and the living are considered dead.

Frankly, my biggest issue comes down to the novel’s length. Yes, it definitely is funny, but I’d got the joke by about 150 pages in, and my edition clocks in at over 500. That’s a lot of extra time spent on something I thought we’d already covered. However, in saying that, it needs the ending it has. Towards the end, the jokes and lighthearted mood is stripped away and we see the true horror of war for what it really is. War is, after all, not a joke, and the stark reality of it hits you in the face like Orr being hit in the head with a woman’s shoe.

I’m not a bit sorry I read it, and I can see why it’s lingered. Heller has done something pretty cool here, but rather unlike anything I’ve read before.

“Ape And Essence” by Aldous Huxley (1948)

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ape“It was the day of Gandhi’s assassination; but on Calvary the sightseers were more interested in the contents of their picnic baskets than in the possible significance of the, after all, rather commonplace event they had turned out to witness.”

Aldous Huxley is almost certainly best remembered for his dystopian novel Brave New World, but he churned out several books on his lifetime. I confess though that until recently I couldn’t have named another one. I stumbled upon Ape and Essence a few weeks ago, received it for my birthday yesterday, and finished it today. It’s a short one, but interesting and engaging. It all begins with a man called William Tallis.

Tallis is a scriptwriter, and when two Hollywood writers find a copy of his film script, the titular Ape and Essence, in a pile of scripts ready to be destroyed, they are intrigued and decide to seek him out, only to find that they are too late – Tallis is dead. This is all we know of these characters, as they merely serve as a framing device for the rest of the novel which is actually the film’s script, presented without annotations, footnotes or edits.

Tallis’s story takes place in 2108, a century after the planet was destroyed by nuclear weapons in the Third World War. Our heroes are the crew of the Canterbury, a ship carrying the New Zealand Rediscovery Expedition. New Zealand, it turns out, was just about the only country to survive the war as, due to their remote location, no one ever thought them worth nuking. The ship arrives on the coast of what was once California. Botanist and mother’s boy, Dr Alfred Poole, encounters some of the natives, a tribe of humans who believe that the destruction was the fault of the Devil, whom they call Belial. They now live in a society where sex it outlawed, except on one day a year for breeding purposes, women are seen only as vessels for children, and any baby born with deformities (which is desperately common thanks to all the radiation in the atmosphere) is killed in a religious ceremony. Poole is soon caught up in their activities, but when he falls for one of the tribes women, he begins to hatch a plan.

The title of the novel comes from the vignettes that crop up in Tallis’s script. The film would apparently have featured several surreal moments where baboons are pictured as the dominant race, with scientists like Einstein and Pasteur kept on chains as mascots and pets. At first I thought that Huxley was introducing us to a Planet of the Apes scenario, and perhaps inspiration was taken from here for that film, but the scenes exist simply to show us that we humans are just as primitive and violent as the animals we claim to be beneath us. All societies will, after reaching a certain level of power and arrogance, destroy themselves. There are even suggestions that this new civilization that has built up will go on to do the same again to itself.

It’s primarily a satire of the way that humans continue to conduct war and kill off our own kind for, often, superficial reasons. Huxley had of course lived through both World Wars, so knew from experience how violent and evil our species can be. While not one of his more famous works, and containing a definite thread of pessimism throughout, it’s an interesting look at a world that, like all good dystopian novels, feels impossible and yet all too real.

“The Female Detective” by Andrew Forrester (1864)

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female detective“Who am I? It can matter little who I am.”

Literature is populated with almost as many detectives as it is criminals. Some of the best of these are women. We all know Miss Marple, and many of us are familiar with Agatha Christie’s other female detective, Tuppence Beresford. And then there’s Lisbeth Salander, Nancy Drew, Jessica Fletcher, Temperance Brennan, Thursday Next, Ellie Miller … but how many people recognise the name “Miss Gladden”? I would wager very few. But Miss Gladden occupies a very important role in the history of the fictional female detective: she was the first.

Written way back in the 1860s, the novel is another one reproduced for a new generation for the British Library Crime Classics series, which I’ve dealt with a few other times on the blog so far and always loved. This one indeed introduces us to the first ever female detective in literary history. She gives her name as Miss Gladden, but freely admits that it’s not her real name. In fact, we discover very little about her; more interested as she is in talking about her cases and adventures.

The book is split into seven stories of wildly varying lengths which detail some of the cases of our heroine. Some involve a murder, some involve theft, one involves an issue of inheritance, but they all orbit around the fact that the person investigating is female. The stories are of varying quality and interest, and the language is what one would expect of the time.

Miss Gladden, as mentioned, keeps much of her identity secret, and the novel is certainly of its time with the impression it gives of women. Although written by a man, I actually think it does a fairly good job of giving us a female protagonist who is on one hand certainly feminine, and yet at the same time, incorrigible, strong and capable. The book makes note of the fact that it is easier for a woman to eavesdrop without being suspected, or to gain access to the private places of female suspects – be they physical or simply mental – than a man may be able to. Characters accept Gladden in her role, regardless of her gender, which is refreshing, and it’s also noted that she isn’t the only female detective in London. In reality, of course, there wouldn’t be a female police officer until 1915, some fifty years after this book was written.

Some of the stories seem to lack a satisfactory ending. Sometimes justice reaches the criminal by some other method than that of Gladden, or simply she stops writing about them, either unable to solve the case or unwilling to press on with it. Some of the solutions given also, I don’t think, would stand up in modern crime writing, but one can let them slide here.

The book is notable for its historical and literary importance, and I’m not sorry I’ve read it, nor indeed that it’s been widely published again, but I have found more than ever that I just can’t always get on with the style and language of books from two centuries previous. The blueprints are there for all the women who followed in Miss Gladden’s footsteps, but the stories have much improved over time when compared to this original installment.

“The Day Of The Triffids” by John Wyndham (1951)

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Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the garden...

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the garden…

“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”

The world at the moment seems so full of threats to our happiness, health and, frankly, sanity, that it’s almost a relief to dive into one where the problems are more unrealistic and we can go, “Well, Britain may be about to ostracise itself from the rest of the continent, a madman is a stone’s throw from taking the reins of America, and every celebrity we’ve ever loved has died, but at least we’re not being attacked by giant, carnivorous plants”. Thank heavens for small mercies.

When the novel opens, Bill Masen is recovering in hospital with bandages around his eyes after an incident in which his eyes were damaged by poison from an unusual plant called the triffid. Several feet high, with long stingers and the unnerving ability to move around on three stout legs, triffids have been genetically bred by mistake, but it turns out they’re fairly docile, and produce excellent quality oil. Humanity has, of course, turned them into a commodity.

Bill is unnerved by the silence in the hospital, and upon removing his bandages, he soon finds that the hospital is almost deserted. So are the streets. In fact, there’s barely anyone left at all, and anyone who is around can’t see anything. The night before, the story goes, a comet tore through the atmosphere and anyone who witnessed the lights has lost their sight. Unfortunately, around 95% of the world’s population saw it. Humanity has fallen almost immediately.

Concerned about his chances of survival, Bill tries to find others who can see, eventually rescuing the sighted Josella Playton, a beautiful young woman with an undeserved reputation for writing a supposedly salacious novel. Together they set about finding more survivors, stumbling into new forms of civilisation, and all the while wondering if this blindness and the triffids are related, or simply an unfortunate coincidence. After all, now the plants have an advantage – they know how to survive without sight. And they’re closing in.

I didn’t know much about this classic before embarking on it, just that it’s about a race of intelligent, killer plants. But actually the triffids take a backseat to the issue that the world has come to an end thanks to blindness. It’s a terrifying world that the characters now find themselves in as they struggle to come to terms with what’s happened and work out how they’re going to survive. With such a small percentage of the population able to see, you wonder if there can by any hope at all. Bill is quite flat as a character, but having worked with triffids for many years, he seems to have a better understanding of them than anyone else we meet in the novel. Characters come and go, but this feels quite natural for a story about the apocalypse, as factions form and disperse and people are taken sick or otherwise killed. Often we don’t get closure on events or people’s individual stories, and while disappointing in some ways, it works well as a device in a story like this, because there wouldn’t be a lot of answers. Plus, we’re only seeing things from Bill’s perspective.

The triffids themselves are horrific and genuinely terrifying. I found myself staring with caution at a vase of sunflowers in my lounge after I’d finished it. We humans are terrified by the idea of being wiped out by a species more powerful than us (probably because, particularly in the Western world, all we’ve done throughout history is wipe out those weaker than ourselves) and to here make that villain a plant is a particularly evil twist, as plants are so far removed from what we imagine to be intelligent that they become creepy and horrific. The plants seem to show intelligence, and perhaps malice of forethought, and one cannot help but shudder when they reappear on the page.

The ending is satisfactory too, though I don’t want to spoil it here. It ties up what ends can be tied up, and leaves it open for more stories. Hopefully one day humanity can rebuild. All I know is, I’m going to bed with a bottle of weed killer under the pillow from now on.

“The Midwich Cuckoos” by John Wyndham (1957)

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Not your average village.

Not your average village.

“One of the luckiest accidents in my wife’s life is that she happened to marry a man who was born on the 26th of September.”

Hallowe’en creeps ever nearer (as an aside, where the hell has this year gone?) and so feeling in an October-y mood, I settled on reading a book with an all-pervasive unease about it. If you’ve not heard of The Midwich Cuckoos, you’ve possibly heard of the film it spawned, Village of the Damned. Yes, we’re talking today about creepy children, a horror trope as old as the hills.

The tiny village of Midwich sits somewhere in the English countryside and has, for the last millennium, pretty much avoided scrutiny and escaped any drama or important historical happenstance. But all this changes when, on the night of the 26th of September one year, the phones die, the power goes out and everybody in the village falls asleep. When residents from nearby towns go to try and see what has happened, they do not return.

Police discover that there is a point some two miles from the village’s centre that, when crossed, causes anyone to pass out. Even the drivers of the vehicles sent in have fallen asleep and are now blocking up the roads. After a day of this, the strange force field vanishes and everyone in Midwich wakes up again with no memory of what they term the Dayout. Life continues on and the event begins to feel unreal. But then, a few weeks later, it turns out that every woman of child-bearing age in the village is pregnant.

When accusations of extramarital affairs and the like are unfounded, the villagers decide that this must be something to do with the Dayout, and await the births of their children to see how natural the infants are. All the children are born on the same day, and they are definitely not what anyone expected. All of them look practically identical, with blonde hair and gold eyes, and it quickly becomes apparent that they are aging far quicker than anyone could imagine. Not only that, they appear to share some kind of hive mind, and before long they have the entire village under their control.

First and foremost, this book is bloody creepy. The Children are emotionless, bland and terrifying, with a different moral code to humans (they are definitely not human) and the ability to make people do their bidding. This is particularly notable when they stop any villagers from leaving the area, but they are responsible for numerous deaths too. Being young, despite their appearance, they perhaps do not understand their power.

Just having to run an image search for this picture creeped me out.

Just having to run an image search for this picture creeped me out.

But on the other hand, it’s sometimes very clear that they know exactly what they’re doing. While the three main characters who are trying to work out what’s going on – Richard Gayford, the narrator and innocent bystander; Gordon Zellaby, a mentor to the Children; and Bernard Westcott, part of a Military Intelligence team – are fairly interchangeable and none of them are particularly great characters (Zellaby perhaps excepted, due to his amazingly long-winded manner of speaking), the magic here lies with the Children. Although they have few lines and do not really come into their own until over halfway through the book, they remain captivating.

It’s also interesting to read a book with a slightly more old-fashioned tone and set of ideals containing a science fiction plot. It’s sort of like if Agatha Christie had suddenly decided to introduce vampires into one of her murder mysteries. Good fun is to be had though with placing these events into our world. The characters are familiar with H G Wells’s Martians in The War of the Worlds, and so the idea that the children are aliens is not met with complete scorn.

Although occasionally over-wordy, and finishing off in a place which to me felt too soon, it’s a brilliant book. The fear comes in slowly at first, but then settles with a chill and frankly there is little I find scarier than the idea of a group of telekinetic hive-mind kids controlling me. I suppose it’s not really about children, though, it just once again brings into play humanity’s fear of being conquered by something more powerful than themselves.There’s a line in it about how the only reason we’ve taken over the world is because our brains are bigger and better than any other species, so when we’re faced with a race that beats us at that, we are in serious trouble.

If you like the hairs on the back of your neck to stand to attention, and enjoy the feeling of not knowing if you’re going to get a relaxed night sleep ever again, then give the book a go. It’s clever, and occasionally dryly funny, and above all probably still less creepy than the film, making it really the better option of the two. Then again, the book always is.

“Macbeth” and “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599 – 1606)

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This post is an unusual one as it is for two books, both of which were too similar to really warrant pages of their own. Last year I reviewed (individually) manga versions of two of Shakespeare’s plays; Henry VIII and Much Ado About Nothing. I return here with two more.

macbeth“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare (1606)

“When shall we three meet again?”

Macbeth is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and one I studied at school more years ago than I care to think about. Along with Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, it is probably his most famous play, and even if you’ve never read or seen it, you’ll know some of the quotes and characters from it.

While the text of the play remains the same here as in the original, the setting has been entirely changed, now taking place in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland as the survivors, many of whom are mutants, fight for dominance over the landscape. So, not Denmark then.

Most people, I think, will know the story, but for those unfamiliar with it, Macbeth is spoken to by three witches who tell him that while he is already Thane of Glanis, he will soon become Thane of Cawdor and then later, he will be king. They also tell his friend Banquo that, while he won’t be a king, his descendants will be. After originally dismissing their prophecies as nonsense, Macbeth is soon made Thane of Cawdor, leading him to believe that what the witches said was true.

He begins to conspire to take the throne from Duncan and, egged on by his power-hungry wife, the infamous Lady Macbeth, sets plans in motion to kill anyone who may get in his way. Once Duncan is dead, he takes the crown. But in doing so, he has made many enemies, and the witches convince him that he is invincible with a smartly-worded prophecy. Meanwhile, he has started to see ghosts, and Lady Macbeth has started to go mad with the knowledge of what she and her husband have done.

It doesn’t end well.

Macbeth is rightly one of the best known plays, and I think it helps because it’s one of the shortest (2477 lines compared to Hamlet‘s 4024) and easiest to understand. It’s simply a story, I feel, of how knowing the future can drive one mad. The appearance in the story of prophecies and ghosts are taken as read, and they aren’t there to be questioned. While a lot of it is about men fighting and basically having a pissing contest regarding who is most powerful and who will have the best legacy, it’s arguably the few female characters who make the story what it is. The Weird Sisters put the whole plot in motion, and Lady Macbeth is perhaps the most interesting and recognisable woman (after Juliet, maybe) in the Shakespearean canon.

While I like the graphic novel format (plays are a visual medium, after all), and it made for an interesting take on the story to set it somewhere completely new, I think that the manga format works slightly better for the comedies. Which brings us to…

as you“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599)

“As I remember, Adam, it was bequeathed me by a will a thousand crowns to breed me well.”

Before coming to As You Like It, I knew just three things about it. Firstly, that it was a comedy. Secondly, that it contains the “all the world’s a stage” speech. And thirdly, it involved a lot of trees. I always prefer the comedies over the tragedies and histories, and I’d chosen this one because it seems to be one, as I just demonstrated, that gets forgotten and people don’t necessarily know a lot about.

In this tale, we have all the usual tropes of a Shakespeare comedy – boys dressed as girls, love at first sight, sibling rivalry, a happy wedding-centric ending, and so on. Orlando and Rosalind fall in love and, while both of aristocratic circles, they meet once and then are split. Rosalind is banished from the lands of Duke Frederick, her tyrannical uncle and in an act of solidarity, his daughter and Rosalind’s best friend, Celia, leaves with her. Rosalind disguises herself as a man, Ganymede, and Celia becomes her sister. They also take with them the court fool, Touchstone, and head off into the Forest of Ar-Den.

Orlando, too, must leave his home or he will be killed by his brother Oliver, and he also powers into the Forest with his trusted servant Old Adam. In the forest, couples meet and part ways, Orlando writes poetry, Rosalind must not reveal herself to him, and Jaques, the most melancholic lord of the sixteenth century presides over everything, sharing his opinion and generally moaning about being melodramatic.

Though I actually sort of hate being the person who says this about Shakespeare, but it did genuinely make me laugh on a few occasions. It’s incredible skill that four hundred years later and in an old-fashioned form of language, Shakespeare has managed to write something that can still make us chuckle today. The biggest laughs come from Touchstone, the fool, and Jaques who was emo long before that was even a thing. I also adore the relationship between Rosalind and Celia, which borders on more than platonic from time to time, but is realised better than many female friendships in modern movies.

It comes to it that this might have just become a Shakespeare play that I really like, and the manga styling works really well for it. Again, the setting has been updated, this time to “an Oriental … post-modern city”, but like most of Shakespeare’s works, this could really be set anywhere.Well done, William, another cracking performance.

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