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I can’t shake Charles Stross’s The Annihilation Score; what happens when James Bond is married? How does he deal with office politics when he has a license to solve problems with extreme prejudice? What if he were a she – where gray hair and distinguished are never used to describe her?

Imagine Lord of the Rings, but if everyone worked for the DMV, with the office politics of The Office. The name of the game is that higher mathematics result in invocations that summon demons (i.e.  “computational demonology”). The consequence is that any sort of algorithms and programs that run in silico and in vivo might end up with big bites out of the machines or the unfortunate human who thought deep thoughts. What has always been fantastic about this series is as much time is focused on the minutiae of form filling as it does on translating Tolkien onto LEAN project management speak. Probably the epitome of this came in the previous book, The Rhesus Chart, where a high-powered scrum ops manager was let loose into the Laundry, possessing the corpus of a sub-committee as smoothly as a demon summoned without the requisite containment wards.

In this novel, we get something even more unique: a woman who is having a midlife crisis. The combination of wielding a demonic weapon, doubting her choice in life partner, being the ace assassin/fixer for the Laundry, and being saddled with greater responsibilities as part of her leveling up – this is all enough to induce a nervous breakdown.

About that part of her being an assassin: her name is Dominique “Mo” O’Brien. She was a tenure track academic in music. Her ability to parse music at both the technical level and at the multiverse level (imagine music as a platform for emotional, reptilian brain programming, and what did we say about programs?), coupled with reasonable skills with a violin, made her an obvious choice to wield a powerful asset possessed by the Laundry: an Erich Zahn violin, which is made from human bones and infused with a demon as its power source.

Her husband, Bob Howard, has been the only protagonist in this series, until now. We see Mo’s side of her life. Before we get there, we should digress into Bob’s background.

Bob is the prototypical nerd made good. He has the usual toolkit of being fairly attentive to technical details, a deep understand of IT arcana, lacks social skills, and did well enough to be promoted to assistant to the demon known as Eater of Souls. Luckily, that guy has decided he rather be on Team Flesh during the upcoming apocalypse, codenamed CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. In this world, algorithms are the key to summoning big nasties in a multiverse. In the modern world, the population growth and Moore’s Law basically means that computational power is increasing towards a singularity. As more and more computers come online, the natural process of thinking will result in more and more breaches across the walls that segment the multiverse. Coupled with the looming spectre of the stars coming right, resulting in the fabric of our reality thinning and opening into other worlds. Score one for the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics! You won’t have time to collect the Nobel as multi-eyed, tentacled nasty burst forth to eat you.

 

The image we have so far is that of the poor-sod Bob. The put upon IT guy who basically does support well. Lacks motivation to move up the career ladder, but through sheer competence, people just hand him jobs of increasing responsibility. We see him as the nerd who lucked out and wound up with a first class mate: brilliant, witty, beautiful woman who, again, is one of the top assassins in the organization (she would be a double-O). But, he does nerd things; goofy side projects, never really separating play from work, fairly focused on the task at hand, definitely closer to the Asperger end of the spectrum – you get the idea.

Except, by focusing on Mo in this novel, Stross has the opportunity to retcon the entirety of Mo and Bob’s marriage. In the past, we see Bob as a fairly nice guy. Mo’s assignments is to meet horrors and then commit even ones in the name of protecting Her Majesty’s Government. When Mo comes home from one of these missions, Bob picks up the psychic pieces. These novels also have the conceit of being after-action reports, written to build up the institutional knowledge base. As far as these reports go, Bob writes about his mission, the fallout from Mo’s secretive missions (which we may or may not hear about), and Bob making tea and holding Mo if she breaks down following a rather trying mission.

Let’s just say that Mo has different thoughts on the marriage.

Cracks can always be seen, albeit from Bob’s view. The superficial reading, before The Apocalypse Score, is that Mo has been fairly condescending to Bob, especially in how an argument about the potential for vampires played out in the The Rhesus Chart. But I thought that was likely due to the difference in rank, responsibilities and backgrounds of the pair. At any rate, I did not think too much of it.

By the end of the book, it is clear that Bob has done some personally questionable things: to wit, he realizes the optics of having an ex come back into his life and then working rather closely with her. Remember that high-powered ops manager? Mhari happens to also be Bob’s ex (from hell). The whole thing seems rather muted; not much was said about whether Mo had issues or not. As a matter of fact, it seemed implicit that Mo did not see this as a threat. Let’s just conclude that Bob is  capable of self-delusion and, in Charles Stross own comments on his blog, Bob might be classified as an unreliable narrator.

That’s the long way of saying that, Bob glossed over whatever comments and feelings Mo may have had, about Mhari coming back to The Laundry, and possibly about how his and Mo’s conversations played out. Considering how readily Mo drew her weapon on Mhari, near the end of The Rhesus Chart, it’s clear that something was festering and that Bob just might have elided.

Now, there was a perfectly good reason why one might stash a beautiful blonde in one’s home. Mo’s and Bob’s home is an official safehouse. Given the infiltration of Laundry HQ, and a subsequent plan to use the vampiric assets as bait, leftover vampires were sent packing to simplify the field op. Since Mhari was not used as bait, Bob decided to send Mhari to his house.

But considering that a) Bob did not let Mo know, b) Mhari is pretty and c) one of the benefits of being a vampire is having charisma and glamour that can’t be turned off and Mhari now would make supermodels feel like they should hide from cameras, optics might be murky. Especially if the wife gets an emergency call for extraction from her mission, is worried about an infiltration of HQ, this action takes place late night, and having been dismissed as everything was “under control”, she goes home to find… a gorgeous woman in her home.

The way Bob wrote the Rhesus Chart report, of course it is favorable to him. He was somewhat busy and didn’t have a chance to call Mo; to be fair, nothing happened. Although Mhari did attempt to seduce Bob (magically, and by turning on the charms) as a way to recruit more vampires to help her execute a coup within the Laundry (or to at least clear the way for her to make bank before leaving). And somehow, Mhari was also somewhat confused by Bob’s insistence that she spend the night at his safehouse (there was one more vampire who needed sheltering). There was some canoodling attempted, but Bob put the kabosh on that. But the fact that it got that far is somewhat suspicious.

Mo was not in the mood to hear all that. All this is complicated by Mo’s weapon. The demonic violin has plans of its own. She might be losing control. Surprisingly, Bob was able to stop the demon in the violin. What’s strange is that Bob writes as if he was the wronged party and he was the one who needs protecting; he felt unsafe and decides to move out.

This is all important for The Apocalypse Score.

Mo apparently needed some time away from her work, and a diplomatic mission doubled as a much needed vacation. She did not really miss Bob, or wished they could share this moment. It was during this soiree that the events of The Rhesus Chart happened. While her first question is whether Mhari slept with Bob, it immediately becomes clear that things haven’t been right in the O’Brien-Howard household. Projecting back, it is unlikely that Mo took the re-appearance of Mhari in stride, in The Rhesus Chart. Bob probably played down drama.

Getting Mo’s point of view is therefore important.

This is the first Laundry novel narrated by someone other than Bob. Mo, at this point in the series, is an accomplished assassin of the possessed and the damned. Mo has never been anything less than stellar in her work. While we all show up to see how the world of the Laundry meshes with the world that we know, what moved me about this novel is that Stross focused on Mo’s unraveling: of her personal life, her ability to carry on her work, and the crisis of being an aging woman.

Now, I can’t say whether Stross portrayed a woman well; I have no experience. What I can say is the novel is sympathetic to Mo’s plight, presented her point of view in a fair way, and I can at least recognize that as a person, Mo seems to respond in a reasonable manner. At the least, it seems like her words and deeds had some consistency to expressed desires and motives, and possibly in the nebulous realm of inter-personal cost-benefit analysis. Stross successfully grounds Mo emotionally, but without lurches in action that might tempt some to say Mo behaved capriciously. Mo behaves like a rational and emotional adult, making choices that make sense.

If you can’t tell, I really liked what Stross did in The Apocalypse Score.

The slick thing about this novel is that it allows us to re-interpret previous novels (esp. with regard to Mo) with knowledge from Mo. In previous novels, Bob certainly appears to be your prototypical aging geek. He has enough toys at work and projects at home to keep him busy, but the impression is that the traditional home structure is inverted. Mo is the specialist; she’s called in to do the dirty work no one else can do. Bob naturally would feel subservient; what also comes across is that Mo might condescend to him and his little worries – as seen by Bob. Bob is a fairly simple guy. As the Laundry Files is written from the perspective of a narrative after-action debrief-slash-diary, we do get some sense that Bob generally is a straight-arrow. He has the usual self-deprecation of being a geek/IT guy. He does not do well in social settings.  While endearing to the presumed audience, look at it from Mo’s angle.

They are going on a decade of marriage. It isn’t obvious that their professional circumstances have changed all that much. Both note that their social circle is diminishing (but of course that’s fine by Bob). The routine seems to be, from Bob’s perspective, Mo comes home and decompresses. He’s there to listen, complain about the bosses together, and fetch her tea. Rinse, and repeat. It might be that the best way to sum up what Mo feels is that she needs to be a vibrant human, not someone who clocks-in and clocks-out. From that one simple idea, the complications of Mo’s life and personality follows.

Because I bought into the Bob as considerate geek trope, I fell into the wrong way of thinking about their relationship. If we take Bob’s point of view, it does seem Mo was unseemly fast in moving on from Bob. Again, since Stross is fair in his portrayal of Mo, we see that maybe, Bob isn’t offering much in the relationship department. She and Bob have been diverging for some time. In which case Mhari showing up in their home is simply the most recent insult.

 

You might ask, so what? Well, one can’t help but map the beats in the novel to one’s own relationship. In my case, my wife and I are going on 15 years of marriage. I can see myself in Bob, and most importantly, I don’t really want to fall into the standard geek trope of worrying more everything but people. While my wife and I are pretty solid in the family unit type of activities, it does take a bit more effort to that something extra into the marriage. That might be what people mean when they say the romance is gone. That extra bit of effort falls by the wayside, as family life takes over.

Bob clearly failed at that. At some point, standard doesn’t cut it. I think Stross did a fantastic job describing how the relationship is breaking apart, and that’s what stuck with me. It isn’t that Mo needed romance, but I can see why feeling wanted or special might be nice. The Bob mentality is selfish in the extreme; he has his work, and then his hobby – which looks a lot like work. I think it is supremely unfair to just assume that the spouse needs to dote on the geek, because geek hobbies can appear to be harmless. As a matter of fact, one might easily argue that some geek hobbies are actually productive. But that’s not the point. The phrases “golf widow” or “football widow” doesn’t refer to the jerk who fantasizes about being the jock:  it’s that the jerk indulges in his hobby to the exclusion of everything else. It just might be that Bob needs to stop taking Mo for granted.

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I have an idea for a short story; the premise is an innkeeper is tired of heroes tramping through his part of the countryside on their way to yet another world shattering showdown with yet another magic-wielding villain. The line between good and bad is besides the point; when the cost of saving the world is to scorch half of it, it seems that the tension isn’t between the good and bad, but between those who have powers and those who have not. My story would simply be a monologue, with the old man just tired of cleaning up the common room and making sure his daughter does not catch the wandering eyes of the heroes. I guess it could also be summed up as Occupy Middle Earth.

The well of this idea comes from how I see sorcerors and wizards. I think they have an element of the technological Singularity, despite authors treating power magicians as like us, but with more power. Alien, in the fantasy world, tends to look like Sauron – they are recognizably ambitious, power hungry, and selfish. I haven’t really seen magic approached in the same way as hard Artificial Intelligence, in an analogous way to Charles Stross’s Eschaton series (Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise) or Accelerando. I haven’t seen enough written about magicians as being so different that they might as well be from other worlds; instead, we get absent minded old men whose heads are on “serious matters”.

And while we are on the subject, I find it unrealistic (ha!) in fantasy stories that, even if we accept the premise of these authors (and of course I am not disputing that part of suspension of disbelief), it seems strange that, by accident, those who tamper with such powers haven’t rent the world asunder. I am not quite complaining about the contrived plot devices, where the Evil Magician requires some long lost trinket to seize ultimate power. But confrontation happens to scale linearly, not exponentially, despite there being no real reason against it. For example, we wouldn’t expect a firefight in a Tom Clancy novel to escalate from knives to guns to rockets and then nukes. The problem is that generally, there is no such inherent, infrastructure based constraint on magic use. Each magician has the potential to be a nuke.

The solution is a trope. The magician hero is usually a neophyte. The exploration of the mechanics of magic is part and parcel of the fun in a fantasy novel, but I haven’t seen a compelling reason for why the magic the hero uses at the final showdown could not have been used sooner. Aside from the contrivance of the magician having to learn that particular skill or spell.  I think another reason is literary: the audience can relate to the neophyte, since the fantasy novel is an escapist-empowerment fantasy. We want to have the option of imagining that we can get that power. And so we don’t really get novels from the point of view of Gandalf. We follow the Hobbit, in this case a literal small person.

This is interesting, because the experienced wizard is generally relegated to a teacher and mentor role. The fact that authors generally choose someone less powerful or less experienced suggests that they do see a disconnect between the audience and if the story was explicitly about someone much more powerful. Why not carry this through and treat the all powerful magicians as something with motivations that we can’t comprehend? Instead, we generally get a dotty, absent-minded old man.

The other approach is to make the magic more mundane and familial, as in Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. At heart, this novel plays out like a family drama, albeit with a bit more of smoke and mirrors. The story starts with Nora, (yet another) dissatisfied graduate student working on her dissertation, whose life seems to be at a low. Her adviser is no help, and her ex had unceremoniously “traded up” and is now engaged to Nora’s replacement. She decides to lose herself in the festivities of a friend’s wedding in the Hamptons. Nora passes through a crack in our world and finds herself in Ors.

What I liked about this book is that it is so intimate. Our first introduction to Ors is through the group of beings known as the Faitoren (as we find out later.) They are beautiful, glamorous, sexy, and carefree. Just the type to seduce Nora to a life of dissipation. However, it isn’t long before the veneer cracks, and we find the group exposed for what they are. Naturally, Nora is rescued by a wizard – Arundiel.

What follows next is positively domestic. The setting here is medieval, with the attendant relegation of women into subservient roles. Nora is a stranger in a strange land; to fit in, she begins serving as a help to Arundiel’s houseservant. We learn about the world in, I think, a realistic pace. I think one could argue it is slow, I enjoyed learning about Ors by seeing how Nora interacts with the world. We see Arundiel perform sorcery, but for a long time, Nora remains skeptical about the things she sees. For almost half the book, Nora has no powers. We actually see her cleaning the kitchen, learning to read, and trying to stay out of trouble.

No such portal fantasy could be complete without a ball. Arundiel, who holds land but is naturally has higher stature due to his power and experience, must attend court and wished to take Nora with him, if only to marry her off and have Nora out of his life. Once the costume party is past, the novel begins in earnest. It seems that Nora, in her time with the Faitoren, actually was married to one of them. Nora was to be a broodmare, and frankly, it is positively quaint how even the monsters did not want a child out of wedlock.

In the second half of the novel, we begin to see the martial nature of Ors: the Faitoren have power, but the humans and Faitoren have a treaty, enforced by the magic of Arundiel. The Faitoren generally accomplish their feats through magic enhanced beguilement; they want to leave their enclosed space and rule the world. With this promise of an eventual showdown, Nora begins to learn magic. We begin to explore the limits of magic and also find out why Arundiel and Ilissa, leader of the Faitoren, bears such ill will towards each other. (Hint: the reason would fit right into a soap opera.)

As I had said at the beginning, we generally find a linear progression in the types of magic being used. The neophyte eventually taps into great power. We seem to avoid that here. One thing Ms. Barker does well in her novel is to keep the scale small. For example, a large battle is comprised of a few hundred combatants. In this context, Arundiel is powerful, but not ludicrously so. In general, the magic Arundiel used at the end was similar in scale and magnitude as what he showed in the beginning. In this sense, I think Ms. Barker avoided that common pitfall of simply cranking up the stakes at each and every confrontation between Ilissa and Arundiel.

The book is set up for sequels, and it is a slight problem because it’s so obvious. Or, alternatively, one can look at it as a set of dropped plot threads at the end. But there are so many nice touches: how Nora’s frustrated ambition and struggles translated into a medieval setting, how she applied small bits of magic to earn money, and how she gave voice to basic ideas about how language can easily be used as a tool to weaken social standing of outcast groups.

I really enjoyed this novel, as it provided some balance to the more conventional, and muscular, points of view that I’ve seen in the fantasy genre. I came across an essay at the New York Times by Ms. Barker that shows how differently she thinks about magic as used in fiction. While the novel might not break free from normal dramatic tropes (Nora loves to compare Arundiel and Ors society to Pride and Prejudice), it does offer a different take in the fantasy genre as well as being a fun read.

Some time back, Jodi Picoult and Jonathan Franzen were focal points for pundits and self-proclaimed gate-keepers in arguing whether popular literature can ever be Literature. Naturally, one might expect popular authors* who lack critical praise or who write genre novels to take exception.

Rudy Rucker, a scientist and well-known fiction author, has recently called attention to this matter. He is generally classified as a science fiction writer. In a recent stint as a guest blogger on Charlie Stross’s blog, Rucker expresses dissatisfaction at being pidgeonholed in such a way, labeling it a “category mistake”. His point is somewhat reminiscent of Picoult’s: categories do narrow perception**. By placing writers into “literature” and “popular/genre” bins, such distinctions frame discussion around whether the work has value, rather than examining the ideas, themes, motifs, plots, and characters in a novel.

 

Rucker himself cites Kurt Vonnegut and Jonathan Lethem as examples of high-brow literary authors who managed to transcend their genre labels. Most recently, I finished Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which has a fantasy setting. As far as I understand it, Murakami is also considered a high-lit author. In 1Q84, he uses some standard fantasy/sci-fi tropes, such as multiple worlds/parallel universes and teleportation. However, most of the novel is spent in the heads of the two main characters. There is a lot of rumination in the novel, ranging from why an author writes, to ethics, and to fate and sacrifice. These are among the standard thematic elements for any literary author.

This seems to be the main discrimination point between high-lit and everything else: literary authors focus on the so-called human condition. If an exciting story falls out from it, than one gets this feeling that it would be a happy accident. Generally, the gripe against non-literary works is that the opposite is true: the characters are secondary to other story elements. While this distinction is fair, I disagree, as strongly as does Rucker and other authors, that writing a novel about the human condition puts it on the only track to beatification.

Despite the subjectivity inherent in engaging with art, I find it ironic that literary critics and editors act as if the line between high- and low-brow is so distinct. I can appreciate the fact that anyone involved in art (by which I mean all such endeavors: music, movies, paintings, sculptures, books, etc.) will have an immense amount of experience due to their continual exposure to it. They can be quite informed with how a given work can be placed into the context of an epoch, and they are certainly in a position to recognize its uniqueness. But this must be tempered with an understanding that, in this milieu of constant exposure, what piques their interest and what they regard as a distinguishing feature may not be the same as how the public perceives the work.

Even if I don’t read as much as I do, I would still have opinions about what passes for schlock. But I happen to think that judgment is not as interesting as discussing the bits of a novel or story that are interesting. The simplest analogy I can make is that, in the realm of science articles, one rarely comes across terrible papers without any intellectual value. Sure, some papers over reach, and others lack proper controls. The sense here is that the paper could be good, if the researchers had only done a little more work. So the reader is left with feeling ambivalent. But because science is like a tapestry, the reader will probably stitch this imperfect work into his understand and outlook. This is what I mean when I say that it is rare to find some bit of science that cannot be integrated in this way. Instead of a smoking gun, a “bad” paper may only provide circumstantial and suggestive data.

I suppose I take this approach in my reading of literature. That is, I would rather focus on the parts of the novel that left a great impression on me, for whatever reason. Once, I read a profile  of Bob Rines in The New Yorker, by Larissa MacFarquhar, about his search for the Loch Ness monster. To be frank, I was infuriated by the presentation of Rines and his search, in that it did not focus on the fact that none of Rines’s tools had ever recorded evidence of the monster. Instead, the article was immensely sympathetic to Rines while dismissive of the skeptics who opposed him, portraying them as a bunch of killjoys.

However, the other thing that I remember is that the piece was so well-written, that I had thought it was clear what MacFarquhar had to say, leading to my becoming so exercised. It was as if she had perverted her talent to peddle ignorance. Yet, if I had to choose a model to emulate and to learn from, this essay would rank among the top of the form that I had encountered.

This is simply an example of the ambivalent feelings one can get on reading, and is quite peripheral to any so-called  objective quality one can supposedly perceive. My bias is that I find these thoughts more interesting than a simple yay/nay verdict.

In much the same way, I do not find it constructive to sort books into high-lit or genre. I find it destructive to promote that there is such a difference. With that said, there are books that lend themselves to having more depth and rewarding deep readings. Like the Murakami novel 1Q84. I feel that the novel, being about the deeds, thoughts, and growth of Aomame and Tengo, do not need the fantastical elements to work. And yet I found the fantastic and mundane integrate so nicely, that I am fully engaged in thinking about why he used that particular device (i.e. the “Little People”.) The inverse can be found in a novel like Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. He uses character archetypes so he can ruminate on the nature of knowledge, thinking, and time. I feel deeply that both novels are extremely fun to read and think about, for entirely different reasons. And yet the most important thing is that these two authors have made a connection with me; does it matter whether a novel probes the deepest recesses of human emotion or tries to show how humans understand?

*Yet another occupier of the literary ghetto is the popular author, consistently atop best sellers list. Again, I find the ivory tower distinction that there is somehow a separation of motives, between those who pursue the highest form of literature and those who wish to make money, a red herring. John Logan, a playwright and screenwriter, said this best:

[he] turned to the list of actors in Shakespeare’s troupe. ‘I also love this, because it shows that Shakespeare was not writing for the ivory tower,’ he said. ‘He was writing to put asses on seats, the same way I am.’

He was followed (paid subscription required) by Tad Friend, of The New Yorker. Logan was in a rare books shop in NYC, deciding on pieces to add to his Shakespeare library. He was looking through a folio when he said that.

I am intensely aware that a profit motive tends to drive art to a wasteland (see: summer block buster movies, TV sitcoms, Britney Spears, and crank-them-out authors.) But it seems strange to say that art can be divorced from commerce. Artists need to subsist; their labor happens to be more ephemeral, and their paymasters more fickle, than for an office worker. If one already agrees that an author should be entitled to recompense, and he or she already is contracted by a publishing firm, then what does it matter that an author strikes it rich or not?

Yes, I suppose one might say then the next work might become corrupted, angled to sell more copies. I find it hard to see how one might separate the commercial aspects of book or art production, to that of seeking an audience. Money is simply a proxy for eye-balls and attention. How else might one see if their works are actually engaging readers, rather than serving as doorstops or as a coffee table adornment? 

**In much the same way my recent post on violin quality and preference suggests, simply identifying a violin as a Stradivari or setting a high price on a wine creates expectations. Because we are told something has a higher sale price or a lower “worth” (or higher rarity, or is in demand), we are likely to take on those  impression. That is why blind wine tastings (and similar “tests”) are a better way to let us gauge our preference.

Of course, there is also a related issue of palate, and whether all tasters will judge based on a similar set of criteria. That is a separate matter entirely. What I am proposing here isn’t a scientific tool,  but simply an informal and easy way to remove expectations and bias for entertainment purposes. This ought to allow tasters to make a decision based on their own ideas, skills, talents, etc, rather than simply agreeing with some existing opinion. This by no means guarantee independent assessments. Humans have a tendency to herd and become more likely to select the more popular verdicts, as they are made known what their peers think. Saving the revelation until the end might help here.

There might be something to this: one such blind-test was performed for literature by The Sunday Times of London. Opening chapters from two Booker Prize winners (Stanley Middleton and V.S. Naipaul, the latter having received the Nobel Prize in literature) were sent to 20 publishers and agents, with names and titles masked so that their provenance couldn’t be known. These “new” submissions were rejected by all but one of the recipients. Regardless of whether this “test” was done in earnest or as a joke, the result is telling. 

Both Naipaul and Middleton took a dim view of the result; they had toiled to produce the works, and they consider both books to be superb. After all, they were awarded the Booker Prize for those works. They conclude that the publishers and agents no longer understand what makes a good novel or literature. That’s one view and they are entitled to it. However, one might draw other conclusions,  that there is no objective marker for what passes for literary quality. Or that tastes and the appeal of styles may have simply shifted. This latter point is slightly different from simply a lack of objectivity. It may be that for a given generation, with a shared education and cultural background, they may in fact have come to a consensus. However, this group opinion would shift, when compared to other cohorts, as they have different points of references and intellectual development.

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