Category Archives: Atoms for Peace

A delayed double feature to last week’s movies

One the Night of the Comet commentary track, writer/director Thom Eberhardt listed TARGET EARTH (1954) as an influence on the film, so that was my first choice for viewing last weekend.The film’s opening scenes in which Kathleen Crowley wakes up (having tried and failed to commit suicide by sleeping pills) to find the small city she lives in completely empty are extremely effective. Then she meets up with a similarly baffoed Richard Denning and a couple of party animals; together they figure out that the city was evacuated while they were all passed out for one reason or another. Then the sight of some rather unconvincing robots tells them why everyone else left … meanwhile the military tries to figure out how to stop the robots sent as the first wave of a Venusian invasion.

Despite the robots and the underlying absurdity (I’m familiar with evacuation issues and clearing out a city in 12 hours is impossible), this is pretty good. I don’t like the gangster who wanders in late in the movie but I do like that the protagonists are just trying to survive; they’re not part of the fight against the aliens and don’t really know what’s going on (I used a similar approach in my Atoms for Peace short story The Claws That Catch). “All we can be sure of was that this invasion was not launched by any power upon this Earth!”

Kelli Maroney says Eberhardt told her to watch Carole Lombard in MY MAN GODFREY (1936) for her role as Samantha and I can sort of see why. Lombard’s character is something of a space cadet, a ditzy heiress who recruits derelict William Powell as a find in a scavenger hunt, then gets him to work for her family as the new butler. Much to her annoyance, he refuses to fall in love with her, but her efforts to change his mind keep the movie humming. With Eugene Pallette as Lombard’s grumpy father and Alan Mowbray (to the left of Powell in the post above) as a former college chum of Powell’s. Definitely worth rewatching in its own right. “What does it matter where one puts flowers when one’s heart is broken?”

And to go with Webber’s Phantom of the Opera I rewatched Lon Chaney’s classic silent THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). While I suspect Webber may have replaced Chaney as the definitive version of this story, this is truly spectacular production in the sets Chaney’s powerful performance and his grotesque makeup (unlike most later versions, Erik here was born a freak; later incarnations were the result of accidents). Another one that’s a pleasure to rewatch, though Christine has a better role in the stage show. “No longer shall I spew venom like a toad.”

I also caught an episode of the old DESILU PLAYHOUSE, The Time Element, which I’ve wanted to see for years because it’s the pilot from which Twilight Zone launched. William Bendix plays a bookie telling psychiatrist Martin Balsam about this recurring dream in which he wakes up in Hawaii — specifically Pearl Harbor, Dec. 6, 1941. Initially he plans to exploit his knowledge and bet on every upcoming sporting event, but then he starts having qualms and tries to warn people about the Day That Will Live In Infamy — but will anyone listen? The version of the grandfather paradox given here doesn’t make sense, but the cast is solid and the situation is effectively intense; it says a lot about the limited exposure to SF most of the audience had back then that Desi Arnaz, as host, reassures viewers this was all the psychiatrist’s imagination. “The U.S.S. Arizona’s never been sunk!”

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Putting the pieces together

Like (I imagine) a lot of writers, I’m tossing around ideas in my head even when I’m not writing. Maybe more when I’m not writing, as I’m not required to focus on anything.

A lot of it is less plots or characters than just bits of things. Opening lines. Names. Ideas. Scenes unattached to a story (particularly climaxes. I love imagining dramatic climactic confrontations). I sometimes think they’ll just float around in limbo unattached because I’m very linear in my writing: I can’t start with a scene and then write the story that leads up to it. My mind just doesn’t work that way. Lately, though, I’ve noticed I’ve been able to use several them.

Death is Like a Box of Chocolates incorporates bits of several ideas floating around in my head. A story about a small-town reporter. A female lead with the first name Pershing. The idea of a thief stealing something off a baggage carousel that turns out to be supernatural — I’ve had that floating around in my head since before security cameras were everywhere, one reason I wound up setting the story in the 1980s.

Impossible Takes a Little Longer will, if it ends up the way I anticipate, use up a scene I’ve had floating in my head for a couple of decades, which I won’t spoil here. I didn’t start from that scene and work back, it just suddenly struck me how well it would work in the book.

I’ve done this occasionally with earlier stories. Not In Our Stars But In Ourselves, one of the stories in Atoms for Peace, used a name I’d had in my head, “Elegy” Walker, though very differently from my original concept. Maria, my protagonist from Southern Discomfort, drew on an earlier character in earlier drafts, an Italian-American living in a small Southern town. The difference is so marked, I may go back and reuse that earlier version somewhere else some day (ditto a supporting character, Megan O’Donnell, who got dropped entirely).

It feels really good when I get to use up one of these ideas. Really, really good, like an itch that’s been lying there, waiting for the scratching. I’ve got maybe two more climaxes I’d really, really like to put to use — let’s hope the trend continues and I can do it before too long.

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Worlds in collision: why I don’t write utopias

In a recent thread on Twitter (sorry, I don’t have a link), NK Jemisin took issue with people pushing for fewer dystopias, more utopias: people of color, women and gays (for example) all have good reasons not to feel optimism. Where utopian fiction is sunny escapism, dystopian fiction grapples with the darkness.

I see her point about the appeal of dystopia, but I think breaking utopia and dystopia into some kind of escapism/serious fiction dichotomy is wrong. Utopian fiction is traditionally educational, not escapist, starting with Sir Thomas More’s original Utopia. The goal isn’t to entertain with a fantasy but to show how an ideal society would work, or how we get from there to here.

Conversely, a lot of dystopia is escapist. Hunger Games. Cyberpunk. It can be the horror of the protagonist being ground under by a corrupt system, or the excitement of being the rebel fighting against tyranny, but the goal is, as with most fiction, entertainment. It may satisfy because it speaks to our fears about the future or our experience of life, but I don’t think it’s inherently more serious than utopian fiction.

And that got me thinking, again, about how when I write stories that change the setting’s social order — Southern Discomfort, Atoms for Peace, Questionable Minds — I change some things, improve some things, but I don’t improve everything. In Atoms for Peace, women are much better off, 1950s sexual standards are looser, but people of color haven’t gained anything. In Southern Discomfort, the McAlisters prevented the worst violence of Jim Crow from affecting the black residents of Pharisee County, but women and gays aren’t any better off. And by 1973, younger blacks see the McAlisters as more patronizing and outdated than protective.

I could have shot for utopian, or closer to it, but dramatically it doesn’t interest me. A system that’s changed from our own, or in upheaval (in Questionable Minds, Victorian England is still attempting to fit psi-powers into the established caste system) has more storytelling potential for me than a utopia where everything works.

That’s personal taste, not a writing rule: I could imagine the alt.1950s of Atoms for Peace reluctantly embracing civil rights and still tell the same stories. But a setting that works imperfectly appeals to me more. That’s not meant as an excuse — if someone thinks Southern Discomfort should have had a larger gay presence, they’re certainly entitled to criticize my storytelling decisions — just a statement of fact.

Of course, I don’t write dystopias either. But that’s just because I don’t write the kind of SF that imagines dystopia, so no great lessons to learn.

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Making choices and Southern Discomfort

“In a world where all fundamental laws can be rewritten, it is also illuminating which of them aren’t.” says Mimi Mondal in the Hindustani Times. Her point being that worldbuilding in specfic always has political overtones. A world where being gay is unremarkable and acceptable is a political statement, but so is a book that doesn’t have any gay characters.

Which seems like a good launch point for discussing how I’ve handled such questions in both Atoms for Peace and Southern Discomfort. The first is an alternative history in which SF-movies of the 1950s are everyday reality; in the second, one small town has been changed by the presence of two elves as the unofficial leaders since its founding. As a result I changed some of the real world in each book, but not all of it.

In Atoms for Peace women have made huge gains compared to our reality. Much like WW II, the government needs them to make up for the manpower shortage caused by men entering the military or the National Guard. A lot of people still give lip service to the 1950s standards of our world, and plenty of people feel like that’s the way the world should be, but in practice women get to see a lot more adventure than they would have in our timeline (no disrespect intended to those real women who pushed the envelope).

Black Americans, however, are doing worse. Blaming integration and civil rights activism on ET agitators works just as well as blaming it on Communists did. In our 1950s, the federal government’s response to civil rights was influenced by the need not to look better than the USSR (Jim Crow did not serve that end); in Atoms for Peace that pressure is removed. So it’s not looking good.

Gays? Well nothing’s changed for them; they’re still in the closet and still barred from serving in the federal government (though some people are willing to turn a blind eye if the gay’s got valuable skills).

That’s all reasonable, I think, but Mondal has a point it reflects  my writing choices, not some abstract analysis. I write a lot of women into my stories; I don’t use PoC as often. So it’s not surprising I focused on changes that improve women’s lives. I probably could have made bigger and more positive changes to civil rights too (I really don’t see gay rights budging much), but I don’t like the idea of making everything better — it feels way too utopian. So I made my call.

In Southern Discomfort, by contrast, the big change was race. The black residents of Pharisee County have been better off than most of the south, but they’ve still had to deal with slavery and Jim Crow. The role of women and gays in Pharisee isn’t much different from the real world.

As with Atoms for Peace I think that’s a plausible set of changes, but I could have rationalized different ones. With Olwen McAlister around, women could have easily been given more respect. The McAlisters aren’t bothered by anyone’s sexual orientation, so it could have been a more gay-friendly community than typical for 1973. But again, I prefer better-but-flawed over utopian in my alt.Earth settings.

Good decision? Bad decision? Too limited in rewriting the fundamental laws? Wish I knew.

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2018 was not the year I anticipated

So out of 103 goals of varying complexity and importance, I accomplished 53 percent of them. That’s consistent with my performance for 2016 and 2017. As I don’t give myself any rewards for achieving them, I’m satisfied with the percentage. I set my list high, after all (rewards make a good incentive, but it’s hard to find something I wouldn’t do for myself or buy for myself anyway).

The bad news is that my creative output really fell way short of my aspirations. My top goal was to finish Southern Discomfort and submit it; didn’t happen. I wanted to finish four short stories; I didn’t manage any. I only occasionally pitched nonfiction pieces to any markets. I didn’t finish the Undead Sexist Cliches book.

The main reason was that my steady freelance gigs got in the way. Which is not a bad thing—I made well above my writing income goals for the year—but working on Leaf articles and Screen Rant took a lot of time. Particularly as the minimum Screen Rant listicle got longer and some of the topics got further away from my areas of expertise (like finding 17 secrets about the Nick TV show Victorious). Even though Screen Rants are fun and they gave me a chance to play with my writing style, I gave up the gig in the summer; it was just consuming too much of my writing week and Leaf, while duller, paid better.

I have learned from this. It’s the main reason I haven’t started submitting one nonfiction proposal in my files to publishers yet: I think it would just consume too much time and I’d like to do a lot more fiction in 2019.

I did self-publish the paperback edition of Atlas Shagged and Atoms for Peace, though, and I’m quite pleased with them. And I stuck to my goal of only checking email three times a day during work. And I finally got around to putting a PayPal donation link in the sidebar. Oh, and it occurs to me I don’t even bother setting any goals about staying as a full-time writer: barring disaster (which can’t be eliminated of course) it seems like I’m secure in that path.

In nonwriting goals, I kept the bird feeder filled, used sunscreen regularly when walking the dogs or bicycling and bicycled almost once every week (even discounting the weeks the weather didn’t permit it, I didn’t make the cut, but I’m doing better than last year). I called my elected officials off and on, and wrote them a couple of times, though I doubt it did much good (nor blogging about their pathetic performance). I traveled outside Durham several times, mostly with TYG (Mystacon was a solo act, on the other hand) and I got to see my brother and niece in October at my dad’s 90th birthday shindig.

Goals aside, it was a good year (not counting the frequent train wrecks emanating from President Shit-Gibbon). I snuggled with dogs and TYG, spent more social time than last year with friends, read a bunch of books and watched a lot of movies. I hung out more with the neighbors on our cul-de-sac and kept my weight to a reasonable level (not so much this past week, but that’s normal). I turned sixty and threw myself a birthday party (usually it’s just me and TYG). I enjoyed seeing my family (it’s not like they’re just a checkmark on a list) and catching up with my niece for the first time since she became an adult.

Next year I intend to keep having fun. But with more fiction. Details tomorrow.

Happy new year everyone.

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Fall weather, falling asleep, finishing stories

It’s been beautiful outside most of this week. I took an hour bike ride Sunday, and a shorter ride Thursday, relishing the cool air, the sunlight through the trees, all of it. The kind of weather that I mentally associate with returning to school, which gives me a nice feeling of cool new things coming down the pike.

On the downside, DST ended this week, and as usual that wreaked havoc with my sleep (which as regular readers may remember is poor even at the best of times). Normally I have trouble getting back to sleep if I wake after 3:30 AM, as a part of me feels it’s too close to time to get up. After the time change, 2:30 AM is the same as 3:30 AM was the week before. My brain has not accepted I still have lots of time before I need to get up. Not good.

Work, though, went well. I began rereading Southern Discomfort aloud, from hard copy, to spot any final mistakes, bad word phrases, etc.. It’s going well, and I’m pleased with the work so far. but it’s also going to be slower than I’d hoped. Ninety thousand words is a lot to read aloud, even without the corrections.

And I’ve worked out the problems in No One Can Slay Her. If I can print it up this weekend, I’ll read it aloud next week. Putting in hard copy works for me because it feels final. Reading it aloud forces me to pay attention.

Leaf work for the year is winding down, but I still had some to do this week. That kept me from getting a lot done on Undead Sexist Cliches.

I’m doing my 1,000 words of fiction every morning, but I’m now wondering about my approach. I’ve turned out first drafts of several stories, unfinished first drafts of possibly longer works, and second drafts of some, but I don’t feel like I’m getting close to finishing anything or even seeing the finished structure. That’s frustrating. I’ve abandoned enough unsuccessful projects that I’m always afraid I’m putting a lot of time that will accomplish nothing.

Wisp is using and presumably enjoying her little house on our deck. She’s usually waiting when I bring out food. Sometimes waiting a while as she doesn’t realize 5pm feeding is now an hour later than a week ago. Sometimes she sits on the railing and watches me through the window as I get the food — or she’s staring at the bird feeder above the window.

Oh, and I’m actually selling copies of Atoms for Peace, which is cheering. Not that I’m going to knock Patrick Rothfuss off the bestseller lists, but it’s cool to know people are buying it (thanks, whoever you are).

On a personal note, I unfollowed one right-winger among my FB friends, and “took a break” from another. Every time I do, I find the satisfaction of not dealing with their bullshit easily outweighs any concerns I might miss a charming puppy GIF.

And here’s another example of a wine with a striking label. Haven’t tried it (anything above $20 is usually a no-go for me)f, but I do like the look.

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Story Behind the Story: Cover Stories

Writing the final story in Atoms for Peace posed the same problem as Who Watches the Watchmen. I was still planning to start Brain From Outer SpaceInstruments of Science with the events in so I didn’t want to advance the timeline any further. I was figuring how to do that, and then I thought of Kurt Busiek’s and Alex Ross’s Marvels.

Marvels tells the story of the Marvel Universe through the eyes of Phil, a photojournalist. He witnesses the debut of the Human Torch in the Golden Age. Years later, he’s in New York, working for the Bugle, when the Silver Age is in full swing. He sees the Avengers battle the Masters of Evil, the Sentinels hunting mutants, the arrival of Galactus and Spider-Man’s failed attempt to save Gwen Stacey from death. But he’s seeing it as an outsider, a regular guy. He has no idea what’s going on in the heroes’ minds, what mutants are really like, or exactly how the Fantastic Four defeated Galactus.

Yeah, I said to myself, that would work. Show life as a Science Investigator from an outside viewpoint, rather than the people who sleep, breathe and eat the fight against rogue science. The protagonist of Cover Stories became Cassie Sato (sister to FBI agent Harry Sato), freelance journalist. Atlanta is doing some big celebration of Gwen Montgomery’s father so Cassie pitched the Atlanta Journal a profile on “Mile High” Montgomery’s daughter, the science investigator. We open with Cassie along with Steve and Gwen on an investigation that turns nasty. Then she gets to talk to Claire, Dani, visit the local nightclub the Tower of Mordor, get Gwen’s thoughts on why she does what she does and watch the other agents at work (“A couple of desks down, a fat guy nicknamed Slim flipped through a file about a lab in Ojai that had dissolved overnight. His partner, an Italian woman named DiNaldi, was trying to calm a hysterical leather-jacketed teenager claiming his “chick” had only broken up with him because she’d been mind-controlled.”)

Cassie turned out nowhere near as tough as Dani or Gwen. Which is cool; not everyone’s suited for the front lines of a war. She’s a competent writer, dogged in getting the story, more than a little claustrophobic. Talking to Gwen and Steve in Science Investigations underground base makes her more than a little nervous.

And there my saga ends until I try to replot Brain From Outer Space and get it right.

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Story Behind the Story: Who Watches the Watchmen?

So along with the 10 Atoms for Peace stories published on Big Pulp, I sold them two stories that never went up (they paid, I’m not complaining). Who Watches the Watchmen? and Cover Stories see daylight for the first time in Atoms for Peace.

The central character of Watchmen, Kate Meara, wasn’t even in my early drafts of Brain From Outer Space. Instead, I had the head of TSC security, Falconi, taking an interest in the suspicious nature of what was going on, and whether it implied Steve was corrupt or a ceecee (carbon copy, an alien duplicate of the real Steve). A couple of drafts later, it occurred to me that having the head of a national organization watching this one case — they had no way to know how important it was — didn’t make sense. I turned it over to his assistant, a heavyset (Camryn Mannheim is the physique I have in mind) Irish-American woman. Then I wondered why I even needed Falconi. Eventually I dropped him and made Meara the head of just the one base’s security, which made it more plausible she’d have time to focus on Steve.

When I started writing the Atoms for Peace stories, my unconscious asserted itself. Instead of the hefty, motherly-looking woman, I suddenly saw her as small, bony, younger, and plain (“horse-faced” is the adjective some people use). And in a wheelchair. Which was a good idea of my unconscious, I think; while I show several people with scars or prosthetics walking through the story, I didn’t have any in lead roles. Though I decided rather than a victim of some invasion or mecha, Meara had lost the use of her legs due to polio.

As the previous 10 stories took us up to the start of Brain From Outer Space, I didn’t want to go past the time of Instruments of Science. So I told Meara’s story from 1955 up to the “present.” At the start, she’s at low ebb. Boston-born daughter of union leader “Big Mike” Meara, she’s bright, capable, does a lot of office work for dad, plays chess with Senator John F. Kennedy when he visits (Big Mike delivers a lot of labor votes). However she’s married to a faithless cheat, separated but can’t get an annulment, as hubby is in tight with the diocese. JFK, who was instrumental in setting up the Technology and Science Commission, suggests a fresh start: work as the assistant to Donovan, security head of the TSC’s southwestern branch. Kate accepts; if only because it gets her out of Boston winters. And the new Veterans Access Act guarantees the base will have ramps and elevators — after all the craziness of the Invasion and the kaiju, the need for an ADA-style law became obvious.

In California she meets the stiff-necked Donovan who warns her security must be totally detached. No friends. Nothing to compromise your objectivity. She meets Johnny, a handsome young man Donovan hired to push her wheelchair around (she quickly explains she’d rather steer herself), and Nate Strawn, the chief of Science Investigations. And over the next four years, deals not only with conventional security risks but the growing threat of ceecees and alien mind-controllers. When the threats get personal, it turns out Kate has more friends than she realizes …

I think Kate turned out well as a character. She’s an enthusiastic, skilled chess player who interprets life in chess terms, hates smoking (too bad she’s living in a time when tobacco is everywhere), and while it’s only alluded to briefly, is part of a small disabled community. Unlike most of my cast, as she’s a good Catholic and still married, she’s chaste. I know “disabled people are sexless” is a stereotype, but it felt right (I do establish she’s able to “perform the act,” as they used to say). If not, my bad.

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Story Behind the Story: Instruments of Science

In hindsight, the tenth story in Atoms for Peace is an odd duck.

This is the one I wrote as the first chapter of Brain From Outer Space, so I originally conceived it as introducing readers to this world. It’s a morning Science Investigations briefing at the southwest branch of the Technology and Science Commission; Nate Strawn hands out the assignments, mostly dealing with a new panic about “ceecees” (carbon copies, AKA pod people). Sure they’ve had panics before, but learning the ETs this time were actually marrying human women? Real scary!

This serves to set up the premise, plus introduce Steve (fully recovered from Roboticus breaking his arm), Gwen, Jo and Trueblood, plus a couple of other agents to round things out (I never want to write undifferentiated crowds of supporting characters). There are also some rogue science cases to deal with: strange lights outside a desert shack, an attempted theft of Edward Teller’s notes for a super-bomb (in this timeline, knowing the horrible effects of radioactive mutation, the H-bomb never got into development), a werewolf in a girl’s dormitory, some prostitutes apparently being used as guinea pigs. And several impossible deaths at a high powered commercial laboratory in Yuma. Steve and Gwen get assigned that one.

The odd part is that this is the 10th story in the book, so nobody really needs an introduction to any of this. I rewrote the story to eliminate any info-dumping readers would already know and approached it as showing a typical day for Science Investigators. As such, I think it worked.

Dani only appears off-camera, talking to Steve on his wrist-radio. In the original chapter one we got to see her day, but that made things a little too crowded for a 5,000-word story. I cut that, and cut a scene with the Science Police setting up the main plotline. I also dropped a reference to Steve finally finding a lead on his missing brother Tommy.

All of which means I’ll need a new opening chapter for Brain if I want it to be continuous with Atoms for Peace (and I do) as I’ve pruned out all the hooks that would lead the reader onward. Still, I think Instruments of Science works as a short, perhaps better than in the book, so I can’t complain.

Big Pulp accepted last two stories, which I’ll get to over the next couple of weeks, but never posted them, so Who Watches the Watchmen and Cover Stories will give you something you can’t get on the website.

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Story Behind the Story: Mayhem Ex Machina

I conceived the ninth story in Atoms for Peace to lay the groundwork for the Steve/Dani relationship in Brain From Outer Space. Specifically, as they’ve been together for several years, and they’re in love, why aren’t they married?

Of course there’s lots of reasons that could be the case, but I took the one that promised the most conflict: Steve’s proposed, Dani’s said no. She still wants to be with him, and she’s not saying she’ll never, ever say yes, but every time he asks, it’s no. Partly that’s because Steve wants them both off the front lines, so they can live to raise children, and Dani likes her work as a medic. Partly classism: she’s upper-class Boston and Steve’s blue collar. Dani’s not entirely sure she wants to get married at all, but she’s very sure she doesn’t want to break up with Steve. So they’re a couple, but with a big elephant in the room. My original plan for the novel would have her say the L word by the ending, but not the M word.

In Mayhem Ex Machina Steve proposes for the first time and Dani panics. She can’t say yes, but will he end things if she says no? The story shows (I hope) that they make a good couple (I think Blood and Steel already showed that) and that Steve respects what she does: when she has to make a triage decision to help someone else, he understands.

But of course this is a series about my heroes battling 1950s SF-movie-style menaces, so I needed a menace. I’d included a scene in Brain where Gwen deactivates a robot threatening a black LA neighborhood, and initially decided to work it into this story as the B plot. Only when I looked at the scene, it came across very White Savior-ish, so I decided no. Instead I brought back FBI agents Harry Satao and Mickey Moon from Hunting Hidden Faces and switched the setting to LA’s Little Tokyo. And rather than a robot built with a white supremacist agenda, I reinvisioned him as a well-meaning idiot. In his big scene, he tells Mickey and Harry that yes, he built a super-robot (modeled on the ET tech from the film Kronos) without any research permit because the government just wouldn’t let him have one. But his ideas were so awesome, he just couldn’t pass them up! He’s raised the robot as a kind of surrogate son, but unfortunately his little boy has run away and it’s getting into trouble. And here come Dani and Steve, wandering right into its path …

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