The Joy Of… Old Paranoia (In Fiction)

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Well, with Halloween approaching, I thought that I’d write about an absolutely fascinating type of fear-based fiction. I am, of course, talking about older works of fiction that either reflect public fears that didn’t come to pass and/or predicted feared events incorrectly.

This was mostly because I ended up reading parts of William LeQueux’s “The Great War In England In 1897“. Although I unfortunately didn’t have time to read the whole thing, I read the first 60-70 pages, the final chapter and the plot summary on Wikipedia. This was a novel that was first published 20 years before World War One began and it predicted a major European conflict… incorrectly.

Form what I read, the novel predicted a short European war (in 1897) in which France and Russia attempt to invade Britain after learning of a secret alliance between Britain and Germany. The novel alternates between narrative storytelling and stern lectures about the state of the British military in the late 19th century. It’s kind of like a cross between a melodramatic thriller novel and a paranoid political tract. It’s chilling, thrilling and occasionally unintentionally hilarious.

But, it made me think about a lot of other old stories, films etc… that tried to scare people about threats that either never came to be or which weren’t quite the thing people should have been worried about. A good cinematic example of this is an American film from the 1980s called “Red Dawn” about the Soviet Union attempting to invade the US.

The subject of Cold War-era fears was also handled in a much more “realistic” and chilling way in another 1980s film called “Threads” (about the aftermath of a Cold War nuclear conflict in the UK). This is a film which still somehow manages to maintain the power to chill, depress and disturb even when watched today – although that’s mostly due to the writing, acting and style of the film. Yet, I imagine that it would have been significantly more disturbing to watch during the 1980s.

Stories and films about old fears are absolutely fascinating for a number of reasons. The first is, of course, that they’re oddly reassuring. After all, reading stories and watching films about feared events that never came to pass (or at least didn’t come to pass in the way that was predicted) makes us feel better about the fears of today. It makes us think that, in the future, we’ll be able to sit back and laugh at the present day too. And, in the age of Brexit and Trump, we need all the reassurance we can get!

The second reason why this genre is so fascinating is because it’s a subversion of the “alternate history” genre. After all, whilst things that fall into this category might currently be seen as “alternate history” stories – they were, of course, about alternate futures when they were written. So, like with old science fiction, these stories give us an insight into how people used to think about the future.

The third reason why this genre is so fascinating is because it reminds us that people have always been paranoid about something. In this way, these types of stories are strangely timeless. They remind us that our modern fears about things like Brexit, Trump, terrorism etc.. aren’t unprecedented, they’re just the modern incarnation of a tradition that has existed for most of human history.

Finally, this genre is fascinating because it is designed to be attention-grabbing. It is designed to shock and horrify. It is designed to keep people reading or watching out of morbid fascination. This lends these types of stories a timelessly vivid and energetic quality which – for example – can make a novel from 1894 read like a modern thriller novel or “mockumentary” film.

So, yes, stories about old fears are, paradoxically, very much products of their time and yet surprisingly timeless at the same time. They’re both reassuring and disturbing, and they give us an insight into how people used to think about the world.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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The Joy Of… Shorter Stories

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A day or two before writing this article, I ended up reading two short comedy novels from the 19th century online. This wasn’t something that I’d planned to do, but after reading something online which pointed out that John Kendrick Bangs’ “The Pursuit Of The House-Boat” featured the ghost of Sherlock Holmes trying to catch a gang of pirates, I just had to read it. Since it’s out of copyright, it was very easy to find online.

And, despite the fact I don’t usually read e-books and the fact that I’d only planned to read the first part, I ended up reading the whole thing within the space of a single evening. Then I ended up reading the short novel that was written before it, mostly because I’d realised that – although I’m interested in the concept of “Bangsian Fantasy” – I’ve never actually read all of “A House-Boat On The Styx” before. Surprisingly, I actually preferred “Pursuit Of The House-Boat” though, because the humour was better, the narrative was more focused and it featured Sherlock Holmes too.

But, even though I could spend a while talking about the ways that these books were ahead of their time (and the ways they weren’t), one thing that really delighted me about both books was their length. They’re more like novellas than full-length novels. And, best of all, it doesn’t feel like there’s any unnecessary padding whatsoever. They’re short, sweet and they leave you wanting to read more.

Despite the 19th century’s reputation for “Doorstopper” novels, it was also the heyday of the short story, the segmented story and the novella too. Back then, short stories were the “television series” of the day. Whether it was monthly Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine, or longer continuous stories released in thrillingly short instalments via Penny Dreadfuls, people back then understood the importance of shorter stories.

Shorter stories were designed to be entertaining, in the way that TV shows are designed to be entertaining these days. Despite their age, a lot of shorter stories from the 19th century and early 20th century are still very “readable” today for the simple reason that they were either designed to be compelling (with lots of drama, horror, action, comedy etc..) or because they didn’t have room for lots of bloated descriptions, extensive character histories, long irrelevant tangents etc…

Back then, literature was the main form of popular entertainment. TV, computers, the internet and videogames didn’t exist. So, shorter stories had to fill that role. They also had to fulfil the most basic purpose of literature, which is to entertain. Yes, literature (and even graphic novels too) can teach us more about humanity, they can make us think deeply etc…. But, above all, they can only truly do this if they’re entertaining enough for people to want to start reading them and keep reading them.

Shorter stories are the kind of thing that can be read “on impulse” because they promise an interesting story without too much time investment. Likewise, the shorter format also means that the narratives have to be more focused, which makes them more compelling. Plus, the experience of reading a short story collection is a lot like watching a DVD boxset.

When I was seventeen, and had first discovered “Sherlock Holmes”, I actually had to ration myself to just three or four stories a day. On reflection, this wasn’t too different to what I do when I’m watching a DVD boxset of a really good TV show these days. Yet, all or most of these Sherlock Holmes stories were written before television was invented!

If prose fiction is ever to become a truly popular thing again, then length should be the first thing to change. Looking at a related subject, there’s been a lot of controversy online about the length of modern computer and video games. One of the main arguments I’ve heard in favour of shorter modern games is that people don’t have the time to play games that they used to. Well, the same is true for fiction too. But, fiction has so many advantages that games don’t.

You don’t need to spend hundeds of pounds upgrading your computer or buying an expensive games console to read a piece of modern fiction from this year. Likewise, traditional books are the original form of portable entertainment. Even modern e-book readers are very portable (not to mention that e-books can be read on smartphones, tablets etc.. too) . Books are also significantly cheaper than computer/video games are too (both new and second-hand).

If we lived in a world where novellas and short story collections sat alongside novels on the “bestsellers” shelves, then prose fiction would probably be a lot more popular than it is now. I mean, we live in a world where films and TV shows co-exist in roughly equal numbers and with an equal amount of prestige. So, why should this be any different for longer and shorter pieces of fiction?

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of… Eccentric Detectives

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Well, at the time of writing, I was going through a bit of a “Jonathan Creek” phase. This is a classic long-running BBC TV show from the late 1990s which focuses on a magician’s assistant called Jonathan Creek who often ends up having to solve strange and seemingly inexplicable crimes. His skill at devising magic tricks and his slightly strange view of the world allow him to solve even the most baffling mysteries.

This show made me think about the subject of eccentric detectives, and why they’re so interesting. Although this is a type of character that I haven’t encountered too often, I should probably start by talking about the original eccentric detective – the one and only Sherlock Holmes.

One of the great things about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories is that Sherlock Holmes is about as far from the more stuffy, Vulcan-like character of the popular imagination and more like his on-screen portrayals by Jeremy Brett or Benedict Cumberbatch.

He’s a geek from the 19th century who is an expert on all sorts of obscure topics, but who considers the knowledge that the Earth revolves around the sun to be a waste of brain space and promptly tries to forget about it.

If you don’t believe me, here’s a quote from the second chapter of “A Study In Scarlet”: ‘ “What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

He does mildly unusual things like keeping his pipe tobacco in a slipper and keeping his correspondence safe by attaching it to the mantlepiece with a pocket knife. Plus, when he is bored, he’ll occasionally do various extremely dangerous things (such as injecting drugs or using a revolver to write a message on the sitting room wall) just to relieve the tedium.

There was no character like him when the stories were originally written and he’s pretty much the original eccentric detective who has inspired several other fictional characters over the years.

So, what is the appeal of the eccentric detective? Why are they so fascinating?

The first reason is because they are unpredictable characters. Although they have a distinctive personality, they are often also intriguingly mysterious too. Going back to Sherlock Holmes yet again, we learn relatively little about his history throughout the original stories. Likewise, we often only get to see him “second hand” from Watson’s perspective most of the time.

Eccentric detectives are strange, mysterious characters who have the added appeal of being non-threatening, since they are on the side of order and justice. But, they also avoid the pitfall of being dull paragons of virtue either. They have just enough moral ambiguity to be interesting, whilst also still very much being “good guys”.

Even much less morally-ambiguous eccentric detectives, like Abby Sciuto from “NCIS” will still do interesting things like listen to loud music, have cool tattoos, have interesting tastes in fashion and be anything but an “establishment” detective.

Another reason why eccentric detectives are so fascinating is because they often tend to solve eccentric cases. Having an eccentric detective investigate depressing “ordinary” crimes would seem somewhat out of place. However, these characters are in their element when they have to investigate brain-twisting locked room mysteries, baffling cases of murder most foul and bewildering catalogues of inexplicable events. So, an eccentric detective is usually a guarantee that a story won’t be the usual run-of-the-mill police procedural.

Finally, eccentric detectives are characters who celebrate eccentricity. They present being slightly unusual, nerdy, unconventional etc… as a positive virtue. And, although this is a lot more common in the media than it used to be, it’s still a reassuring thing. They are characters who don’t “fit in” and they are all the better for it. They are well-respected for it. I can’t imagine a more uplifting and enjoyable type of fictional character to watch or read about.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of… Magazines

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[Note: I prepare these articles quite far in advance and, in the time between preparing this article and posting it here, Metal Hammer magazine was saved. Still, I’ll post the original draft article for the sake of posterity.]
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Magazines are one of those things that sit in the background of everyday life and aren’t really noticeable until they start disappearing. This happened late last year when I read, to my horror, that “Metal Hammer” magazine was shutting down. Luckily, I was able to get a copy of the final issue, but the whole thing made me think about magazines and how awesome they are.

Although I’ve only been a semi-regular magazine reader at most within the past few years (mostly for financial reasons), it’s surprising how important magazines have been to me over the years. I mean, I was first introduced to the zombie genre thanks to having a subscription to CVG magazine for a few years during my childhood. Back in the mid-late 1990s, they constantly ran previews of “Resident Evil 2” and it looked like the coolest thing in the world (even though I wouldn’t get to actually play it until the early 2000s).

Likewise, when I was a teenager, I had a subscription to “Official Playstation 2” magazine. This was during one of the very few times in my life that I was actually up-to-date with current gaming. Actually having a slick, shiny physical magazine (with a monthly demo disc, no less) just made the whole thing feel a lot more modern. Even though I only ended up getting a fraction of the games featured on the discs, actually being able to play parts of current games was amazingly cool.

Hell, one of the many reasons why I’m still so interested in retro gaming is the fact that, thanks to modern digital sales, I can actually play many of the cool computer games that I read about and/or saw on demo discs in the gaming magazines I read when I was a lot younger.

Then there were all of the various lifestyle magazines. Yes, these actually used to be a lot more popular (during the 2000s at least), and they were one of the coolest things in the world back then. Plus, whether it was “Attitude”, “Loaded”, “Bizarre”, “Diva”, “Hello” etc.. there was something for everyone too.

Plus, to some extent or another, these magazines elegantly straddled the line between “respectable informal journalism” and “daringly risque” well enough to actually appear on the main shelves of a fair number of newsagents during the 2000s.

In the simultaneously more liberal and more puritanical world of the internet, there doesn’t really seem to be an exact equivalent of this fascinatingly rebellious intelligent middle ground any more.

Anyway, going back to “Metal Hammer” – when I got the last issue of this magazine, I thought that it would make me feel nostalgic. After all, I’ve probably discovered at least a third of my favourite metal bands via this magazine. I have a lot of good memories associated with this magazine, even though it had been a while since I last read it.

But, when I actually read the final issue, there was nothing “nostalgic” about it. They were still reporting in depth about the current metal scene and interviewing all sorts of current bands that I either had or hadn’t heard of. It felt like I’d barely been away from the magazine at all. Although it came in a format that is “obsolete”, it felt more vivid and alive than most websites do. The quality of the writing was significantly better too.

And, yes, that’s one thing I miss about magazines. Magazine journalism. There’s something about the space limitations of a physcial format that promotes good writing. There’s something about the authority of words printed on paper that leads to better writing. There’s something about the monthly format that eliminates the need for gossipy “clickbait” articles. Likewise, curated letters pages in magazines often tend to be far more enjoyable to read than online comments are (especially if, like in CVG magazine, the editor would sometimes write politely sarcastic replies to the more opinionated letters).

Because of this, the tone of magazine journalism somehow manages to be both formal and informal at the same time in a seamless way. This is something that you don’t really see that often online (I mean, “Cracked” is the only online example of this I can think of).

Yes, I love blogging and I wouldn’t give up the freedom of the internet for the world. But it’s kind of sad that both online writing and magazine journalism don’t seem to co-exist as much as they used to. Both are good in different ways, and there should be a place for both in the world.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of… Genre-Specific Creativity

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Although this is an article about art, comics and fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about music. This is mostly because, a day or two before I wrote this article, I heard a rather interesting song called “Metal Inquisition” by Piledriver that made me think about audiences and genres.

“Metal Inquisition” is a song which heavy metal fans will find absolutely hilarious and non-metal fans will probably find mildly disturbing. It’s a knowingly silly song about a Spanish Inquisition-style group who try to ensure that everyone listens to heavy metal… or else!

And, it’s also the perfect example of a genre-specific thing. It’s a comedic song that is written specifically for heavy metal fans. If you aren’t a metalhead, then you probably won’t get the joke (eg: it’s about heavy metal’s [lack of] mainstream popularity etc..).

There’s certainly something to be said for things that are squarely aimed at fans of a particular genre. For starters, the trouble with making everything suitable for everyone is that, unless it’s done extremely well, it often ends up appealing to no-one.

Unless you are the mythical “normal person” that mainstream cinema, pop music, advertising, gaming etc… exists to serve, then there will be a certain emotional distance between you and the creative work in question. And, well, no-one is that idealised “normal person”. We’re all geeks or nerds in some way or another. We all have preferences and fascinations. We’re all fans of one thing or another. After all, we’re all unique human beings.

Creative works that are squarely aimed at fans of a particular genre acknowledge that uniqueness. They say “some people like this, and that’s cool. Some people don’t, and they should probably find something else“. As such, if you find something that you are a fan of, then it’ll feel more meaningful to you. It’ll feel like something made specifically for you.

This is also useful for creating a sense of community too. After all, if you’re a fan of a slightly obscure genre, then genre-specific things can be a thing which reminds you that “other people like this stuff too!“.

For example, going back to “Metal Inquisition”, the song is such an amazing song for the simple reason that it is a gleeful celebration of heavy metal music (a bit like Saxon’s “Denim And Leather”, Judas Preist’s “Deal With The Devil”, Helloween’s “Heavy Metal (is the law)”, Sabaton’s “Metal Machine” etc… ).

It’s a song that amusingly imagines what the world would be like if heavy metal was the most mainstream genre instead of the least mainstream genre. It’s a song that recreates the feeling of going to your first metal concert and seeing literally hundreds of other people who also like the same music you do. That awestruck sense of actually belonging somewhere.

But, in addition to this, genre-specific things are also awesome for the simple reason that they’re an expression of creative freedom. They show that the person who made them is such a fan of that particular genre that they felt compelled to actually make things for other fans. They show how great stories, films, games, albums etc… can inspire people to create things themselves. After all, you don’t make a genre-specific thing unless you’re a massive fan of things from that genre.

Genre-specific things aren’t “manufactured pop band # 345,237” who were designed by committee in order to maximise sales to the 16-24 demographic. They aren’t “Generic military action videogame #17” churned out annually in order to sell more games consoles. They aren’t “CGI-filled Hollywood Movie # 500,000” with 20% less dialogue to reduce translation costs for international distribution. They aren’t “hip fashion trend #7653” that will empty the wallets of trendy people in London, New York etc… 50% faster than usual.

No, genre-specific things are things made by people for people. They’re the sorts of things that people would make even if they didn’t get paid. They’re things that are made out of love, rather than out of greed. They are things that aren’t “mass-produced”. They’re things that are brave enough to say “if you like this, then that’s great. If you don’t, then find something else!

Genre-specific things are a testament to the power of creativity for the sake of creativity, and to the value of individuality.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of…. Unfinished Stories, TV Series etc…

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The afternoon before I wrote this article, I’d just finished watching a DVD boxset of a TV show that was cancelled after it’s first season. No, it wasn’t “Firefly”, “Tokko” or “Harsh Realm”.

It was a TV adaptation of “Dracula” from 2013. It was clear that the makers of this show had anticipated a second season since, whilst not ending on a cliffhanger, the ending of the first season seems to be gearing up for a much more epic second season. A second season that never happened.

But, do I regret watching this unfinished TV series? No, not in the least.

One of the cool things about unfinished stories is that they’re often more about the journey than the destination. We may never know for certain what happens to the characters in an unfinished story, but we get to enjoy their adventures without any thought of the outcome. In other words, reading a story or watching a TV series with the knowledge that the story isn’t finished means that you get to see it more as an experience than as a traditional story.

Likewise, unfinished stories show us part of something greater and then leave it up to us to imagine what happens during the parts of the story that we don’t read or watch. Unfinished stories are kind of like a springboard for our own imaginations. They give us the building blocks of a longer story and then ask us to try to work out what the rest of the story looks like. And, well, your imagination is probably going to create a more enjoyable story for you than anyone else’s imagination will.

Another cool thing about unfinished stories is that they’re a little bit like daydreams. After all, whenever you have a daydream, it usually isn’t a complete “story”. It’s part of a larger story, almost like a single scene from a movie. And, well, unfinished stories (whether prose fiction, comics, games, TV shows etc…) are vaguely reminiscent of this.

Yet another reason why unfinished stories can be so fascinating is because they show that people have tried to produce something great. Generally speaking, nobody sets out to write an unfinished story or film an unfinished TV series. With fiction, real life can get in the way. Likewise, with prematurely cancelled TV shows, uncreative money-obsessed studio executives are usually responsible.

But the fact that some fragments of the story, comic, game, TV series etc… that could have been still exist is a testament to the power of creativity and determination. It shows that someone cared enough about one of their ideas to actually try to make it, even though there was a risk that it would be doomed to failure.

Finally, another interesting thing about unfinished stories is that they are realistic. After all, all of our lives are unfinished stories. No-one can know for certain what will happen in the future or anything like that. So, unfinished stories can be realistic in this way.

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Sorry for the short, rushed article (I was making a webcomic at the time), but I hope it was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of… New Nostalgia

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As regular readers probably know, I write most of these articles quite far in advance of publication. Anyway, the night before I originally wrote this one, I watched the first episode of “Red Dwarf XI” and was absolutely astonished by it. This is a sitcom that has been going since the late 1980s (although I only started watching it on VHS and DVD in the early-mid 2000s)… and they’re still making genuinely funny new episodes of it!

But this is hardly the first “old” thing that I remember discovering when I was a teenager or when I was even younger, that is still going in some way or another. In fact, I’d originally written something approaching a full-length article about my history of being a fan of Red Dwarf, Iron Maiden, The Offspring, Blade Runner, the “Doom” games, Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes etc.. before deleting it because I realised that it probably distracted from the points that I’m going to make in this article.

There’s something amazing about things that are “old” and yet “new” at the same time. These are all things that are kept alive by both their creators and their fans.

For example, there’s a new “Doom” game (which is too modern to run on my computer 😦 ) and there’s going to be a “Blade Runner” sequel. Yet, the old versions of both things were and are still going strong because of fan-made content. Whether it’s the fact that there are still thousands of people making new levels for the old “Doom” games or the fact that “Blade Runner” has inspired so many other things in the sci-fi genre (including a lot of my own sci-fi art, comics etc…) for literally decades after it was released, both things were kept alive by their fans as much as, or more, than by their creators.

But, yet, none of the TV shows, films, bands, games etc… I’ve mentioned in this article really pander to their fans in any huge way. Sure, they’ve kept the best bits of their older incarnations, but they aren’t afraid to try subtly different new things. I mean, an Iron Maiden album from the 1980s and an Offspring album from the 1990s sound both similar and different from anything that these two bands have released in 2012-16.

They aren’t like a lot of much more “popular” things, which often seem to be defined and designed as much by things like marketing data as they are by actual people. They often don’t have planned obsolescence built into them (eg: like superhero movie/comic reboots, games that move to the latest consoles etc..) to ensure that the latest version is the “coolest” thing. The latest version is just another version, often no better or worse than the outstandingly brilliant older versions.

In other words, they actually seem like they were (and are!) things that are created by people, rather than focus groups and marketing departments.

They’re things that have been created by people with a particular sense of humour, a particular set of musical tastes, a particular worldview, a particular attitude towards their creative medium of choice etc… In today’s world, this sort of thing would probably be seen as “uncommercial” . In fact, it was probably seen as uncommercial several decades ago. And yet because of this these things still have the kind of dedicated fans that cash-obssesed marketing departments can only dream of.

They aren’t advertised incessantly and yet they still pick up new fans. I mean, most of the “old” things that I consider to be my favourite bands, games, books, films etc.. certainly weren’t “popular” when I discovered them by serendipity, accident, recommendation or curiosity back when I was a teenager. They were inherently cool, but they weren’t the kinds of things that the “cool kids” were enjoying when I was a teenager.

In fact, many of these things have something better than advertising. They have an imaginative fanbase. They have a fanbase that is so inspired by these things that they will actually make their own things inspired by them.

For example, “Blade Runner” may only be one movie but the number of other films, games, TV shows, songs, comics and artwork (including many of my own paintings and some of my own comics) that have been inspired, influenced by, or make references to this one little film are too numerous to count. And, yet, the film itself isn’t something that is advertised everywhere or directly remade every five years.

Likewise, many of these “new and old” things are things that were created by people who are still learning and experimenting after several decades. They are things that are both very much their own thing and yet are open to new influences and inspirations.

One perfect example of this is probably the band Iron Maiden. They’re a band who have made very few covers of other songs, and yet their own musical style has both changed drastically and remained instantly recognisable over more than three decades. It’s probably been influenced by more things than the band will ever reveal, yet it’s very much it’s own thing. They’ve had three different lead singers and they’ve gone through both “dark and serious” and “light and fantastical” phases, and yet an Iron Maiden album is still very much an Iron Maiden album.

I could probably go on about this for hours, but there’s always something uniquely wonderful about finding something that is both old and new at the same time. Something which is both thrillingly new and reassuringly old when you first discover it and twhich later ends up taking up residence in your mind and shaping large parts of your own imagination.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂