Rich and Strange: “Santos de Sampaguitas” by Alyssa Wong, Part 2

Last week I reviewed Part 1 of this story; this week I’m reviewing Part 2, as well as reflecting on the story as a whole.

Briefly: it made me gasp and cry in that mixture of shocked, satisfied pain that comes from a story that’s managed to truly, suddenly surprise you with the places to which it was willing to go, the comfort it was willing to strip away. I recently had the experience of moving my body through increasingly heated rooms before plunging it into a pool I hadn’t been told was not just cold, but icy–and the experience of this second half was very similar. I hadn’t realized, after reading Part 1, quite what kind of story this was.

Spoilers follow!

Continue reading

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Rich and Strange: “Santos de Sampaguitas” by Alyssa Wong, Part 1

In preparing for today’s review I had to think about what boundaries I wanted to set for this recurring feature. I said in my statement of purpose that “I’m going to focus on magazines as much as possible, and have the reviews slanted towards recommendations unless I think there’s something constructive to be gained from pointing out a story’s failings.” Yet presented with a story that I intensely disliked, that I thought poorly executed at best and actively harmful at worst, I found myself exhausted by the thought of unpacking its problems. In order to do so I’d want to bring careful analysis to bear on it and possibly compare it to another story that succeeds where it fails — and I just don’t have the time this week. Also, this feature’s called Rich and Strange, not Poor and Conventional.

So instead I’m going to set a precedent by reviewing only half of a story, but one I loved: Part 1 of Alyssa Wong’s “Santos de Sampaguitas” at Strange Horizons. Part 2 goes up next week, so I’ll check in again at that time to see how it stacks up as a whole. For now, I was hooked enough by Part 1 to want to talk about it in depth.

“Santos de Sampaguitas” is the first-person narrative of Tín, a girl working as a maid in a wealthy Manila household with her older sister, Silvia. One night she’s visited by a dream of a dead god who informs her that she, like her mother before her, is heir to his power — power that Tín resists. By the end of this first part of the story, we’re left hanging as to where their relationship will go.

The language in this is beautiful; I was struck again and again by the originality of Tín’s voice, and her knack for a well-turned simile:

the sound of distant screaming, like a boiling saucepan of human voices


The dead god laughs, a dry sound like marbles rattling.

The story’s also full of italicized Tagalog words, which I loved for the opportunity it afforded me to be exposed to an unfamiliar language, to google things, ask around and look stuff up. The italicizing of non-English words in English-language fiction is a subject I’m ambivalent about in the abstract (and sometimes annoyed by in the concrete, when it involves the poor use of languages I speak): consider this informational video by Daniel José Older, or these excellent posts by Ekaterina Sedia on the exoticism of language and seeing through foreign eyes, respectively. It’s a subject that deserves its own post, so I just want to mark it here as something that others may also feel conflicted about. Personally, ignorant as I am about the language politics of Manila, I’m uncertain about whether what I’m being shown in the story is an instance of the dominant class speaking English and peppering their words with Tagalog and Spanish (the reverse of, for instance, people in Lebanon for whom mixing French and Arabic is a sign of poshness), or if the Tagalog’s being used to emphasise moments and concepts by selectively foregrounding the setting and the language most common to it. My feeling is that it’s the latter, which I’m completely on board with — I’ve certainly used Arabic that way myself in my own stories, and my reasoning is often complicated and personal. Mostly, though, I’m just supportive of challenging Anglophone readers out of their comfort zones.

Tín only has the use of one hand, though whether she’s been disabled since birth or through injury hasn’t yet been made clear; what is made clear is her relationship with her disability, and her awareness of other people’s discomfort with it. This creates an interesting framework for her relationship with the dead god — who claims that her disability is its mark on her — and with Rodante, a boy she deals with at market. The relationships are connected, though it isn’t yet clear how; but I appreciated seeing the way Tín’s awareness of her disability book-ends their interaction, going from a marker of her difference to a marker of something they share in common, and looping back to the god.

There’s a strange, high pressure in the back of my head, very similar to the shrill sound I hear during bangungot. I feel stupid, and I have an irrational urge to hide my arm from him even though he’s already seen it. [...] He laughs again as he lifts himself out of his seat and walks toward the back of the shop. That’s when I see that he’s limping. Rodante’s right leg is a tangled, rippled mass of scars. Just like my arm.

The hum in the back of my head builds to a dull roar.

But what I found myself enjoying most, besides Tín’s voice and perspective, was Tín’s talks with the god. An interaction that begins with her trying to remember not to be rude while the god terrifies her, then moves into the god being conciliatory, then pauses when she demands a boon the god can’t grant — it’s fantastic stuff, a wonderful back-and-forth that I completely enjoyed and very much want to keep reading.

Which I will — next week!

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Rich and Strange: Sam J Miller’s “We Are the Cloud”

Welcome to the first instalment of Rich and Strange, a weekly review of short fiction I’ve really enjoyed!

Set in a near-future New York where the disenfranchised sell a portion of their brains to “cloud-porting” — functioning as living nodes processing wireless data for rich people — “We Are the Cloud” is focused on Angel Quiñones, nicknamed Sauro, a 17-year-old in his twelfth group home and “inches away from turning eighteen and aging out.” While there he meets Case, a gay white kid of the same age, and falls in love, catalysing a process of reflection and discovery about himself and the place afforded him by the world in which he lives.

I wanted to tell him about what I had learned, online. How many hundreds of millions of dollars the city spent every year to keep tens of thousands of us stuck in homes like Egan House. How many people had jobs because of kids like us. How if they had given my mom a quarter of what they’ve spent on me being in the system, she never would have lost her place. She never would have lost me. How we were all of us, ported or not, just batteries to be sucked dry by huge faraway machines I could not even imagine.

I loved this story unabashedly: Sauro’s voice and vulnerability, the generosity of his character, and the integrity of his engagement with the unflinching awfulness of the premise are tremendously effective. It’s a heart-breaking, harrowing piece, made all the more so by that near-future vision’s many intersections with the present: in his Author Spotlight, Miller expands on the realities of foster kids’ prospects and the gross systemic injustices they face. It’s also a desperately elegant story, combining a careful structure with a depth and intensity of emotion that puts me in mind of ivy bursting from a brick wall; the very controlled, deliberate punctuation of Sauro’s present with moments from his past is a mixing of mechanical and organic reminiscent of the cloud-ports themselves.

As much as it’s about being a gay kid coming of age in dreadful circumstances, and about pain and betrayal, and about race and class, it’s necessarily also a meditation on different perceptions and realities of power. Sauro’s 6″6, dark-skinned, and muscular; in the story’s first scene he’s called Goliath, intimidating Case’s assailant with a word and a look. In literally the next moment, he’s utterly at Case’s mercy, helpless with attraction, and terrified by it, willing to do anything Case asks of him. Their relationship is a brilliant investigation of the Mandingo stereotype, exploring and exposing its projection on to Sauro as a damaging fantasy, an imaginary power conferred on him in order to justify his exploitation. This dynamic is repeated, reversed, and turned inside out over the course of the story with dexterity and skill.

If I felt the story had any shortcoming, it was in the ending, and this was only a matter of rhythm; I wanted perhaps two more sentences to wrap it up somehow, to bring it to a fade-out ending instead of an abrupt stopping. The stopping works thematically, potentially with a sort of clever ironic twist (not a plot twist, just a sort of arch meta twist) — but this is a story that’s been nerve-strikingly intelligent throughout rather than merely clever, so I’d rather not read the ending with the glibness I can imagine justifying it stopping the way it does.

Definitely rich, definitely strange, as well as moving, beautiful and intense, “We Are the Cloud” was an incredible read, and one I highly recommend.

If you enjoyed the above review and want to support me in writing more, donations are very welcome.

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A Commitment to Reviewing Short Fiction

Yesterday I tweeted the following:

I hadn’t yet read Sam J. Miller’s “We Are the Cloud”; I was just so furious that some twit at Tangent — the same twit, as it happens, whose ravings about Women Destroy Science Fiction I responded to here — thought the shambling homophobic incompetence excerpted above constituted a review that I wanted to make sure the story reached a wider audience.

Then I sat back for a minute and felt bad that it took a bigot panning a story by an author I like to make me read it.

This happens all the time: bigots are a dime a dozen, their disconsolate mutterings easy targets. We can pat ourselves on the back and feel good about rising to the occasion of sticking it to some jerk who thinks two seventeen-year-olds having sex with each other requires a warning label because they share a gender. But I don’t know if that moment of self-righteousness actually translates into sea-change without further, sustained effort; without praising the things we’ve enjoyed for their own sake and creating an environment in which discussions and recommendations of short fiction can flourish outside of award season.

I’m aware of a few people reviewing short fiction online with some regularity; by all means add more in the comments, as this list is not at all comprehensive:

For myself, I want to respond by actually reviewing short fiction the way I think it ought to be reviewed. Reviewing is how I make a living at the moment, so I don’t have much time to spare to do this for free, but I think I can probably cut an hour out of social media faff every day and let that add up to reviewing at least a couple of stories a week. Maybe I’ll stick up a tip jar or something if I succeed in achieving regularity.

So, starting today, Wednesdays will be Short Story Review days hereabouts (at least until I decide whether or not to start a dedicated review blog). I’ll call the series Rich and Strange in the hope of contributing to the aforementioned sea-change. I’m going to focus on magazines as much as possible, and have the reviews slanted towards recommendations unless I think there’s something constructive to be gained from pointing out a story’s failings.

I’ll start with “We Are the Cloud.”

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A Miscellany: NPR, Lightspeed, and PodCastle’s DRINK ME

I genuinely thought September would be something of a respite from the busy-ness of the summer, in which I’d be able to catch up on everything a few things before the end of the month and go into October with something resembling a clean slate.

That hollow, ringing sound you hear is my self-deprecating laughter.

So! Here are a few things I’ve neglected to announce anywhere but Twitter:

I reviewed The Witch With No Name, the last book in Kim Harrison’s Hollows series, for NPR Books here. I liked it much better than the penultimate book, was impressed by the wrapping up of several long-standing plots, saddened by the continued side-lining of Ivy, and perplexed by the withheld epilogue. I’m looking forward to starting a new urban fantasy series, though, and am happy to hear recommendations! Crucial to my enjoyment: strong friendships between women, and women as protagonists. Also ideally the friendships having some kind of narrative primacy over the heterosexual romances. (If you find me a multi-volume urban fantasy with queer romances between women I will just stare at you in sappy gratitude for an uncomfortably long time.)

I also reviewed Your Face in Mine by Jess Row, which so far has the distinction of being the only book I’ve read for NPR that I’ve actively despised. The review is here. For a slightly kinder review (with which I agree), you can read Alex Brown’s take on

And for some palate-cleansing — I highly, highly recommend Saeed Jones’ Prelude to Bruise, which I reviewed here. I was delighted to be asked to read it for All Things Considered, as well (you can listen at the same link), and learned to my astonishment that unlike reading fiction for podcasts, speaking at your speed-of-light conversational pace is actually encouraged for radio. Really all I wanted to do was read Jones’ poetry on air, but they wanted only the smallest of snippets, so allow me to reiterate again that you should all acquire this collection and read it over and over.

Speaking of podcasts — I contributed a piece of never-seen-anywhere-else-and-written-only-because-Dave-Thompson-batted-his-virtual-lashes-at-me flash fiction to PodCastle’s special DRINK ME flash fiction extravaganza, keeping company with stories by Tim Pratt, M. C. Wagner, Ken Schneyer, and E. Lily Yu. My story’s called “The Rag Man Mulls Down the Day,” and is read by the ever-amazing Marguerite Croft, who makes it, as far as I’m concerned, a million times better, to the point where I actually don’t want it to ever appear anywhere in print. I wrote it to be read aloud, and she’s reading it better than I could’ve done, so it’s basically achieved its perfect form. The only way I could imagine it improved would be if someone made a small comic out of it.

You can listen to DRINK ME here, and comment on it in PodCastle’s forums here.

And finally, I’m delighted to announce that starting in March of 2015 I’ll be writing a quarterly review column for Lightspeed, alternating with Andrew Liptak and Sunil Patel. I’m on the staff page now and everything! I’m really excited about this, and looking forward to working further with these excellent people.


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Attack of the Space Unicorn Limericks

So Uncanny Magazine is for real a thing! It hit every last one of its stretch goals! I couldn’t be prouder of Lynne and Michael Thomas, or more excited to be part of their project.

unicorn_finalHowever! Last night, while excitedly watching the numbers, I started a betting pool with Michael in Gchat over how many backers there’d be. With 17 hours to go he was sure they wouldn’t get beyond 975; I was adamant that there would be at least 1000. So I decided that if there were 1001 backers — 1000 besides myself — I would do something ridiculous.

Like, I d’know, read out some hastily penned limericks in honour of Uncanny Magazine’s Space Unicorn mascot while wearing a silly hat. On video.

I’ve never done any video blogging prior to this, so forgive the rough effort; it was done in one take and I don’t know my angles. But here it is nevertheless, born of sheer enthusiasm for sillyness and Space Unicorns and delight at a project’s success.


Space Unicorn Limericks from Amal El-Mohtar on Vimeo.


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Nine Worlds Schedule

And here is my Nine Worlds schedule — which begins TOMORROW, eep!


Suffering Sappho! Queer representation in superhero comics
Connaught B, 1:30pm – 2:45pm (LGBTQAI Fandom)

The Doctor’s Privilege
Royal C&D, 3:15pm – 4:30pm (Doctor Who)


If A Woman Was Cast As The Doctor…
Royal C&D, 1:30pm – 2:45pm

Wouldn’t It Be Cool If…
Connaught B, 3:15pm – 4:30pm (LGBTQAI Fandom)

Bifröst! Queer Cabaret
Comm East, 8pm – 10pm (LGBTQAI Fandom)

Hope to see you there! Do let me know if you’re planning on being there and whether you wish to meet up — this is my first Nine Worlds and I’m looking forward to meeting new people and people I mightn’t get to see otherwise.


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LonCon3 Schedule

My LonCon3 schedule, let me show you it! It’s pretty packed. I’ll note up front that in addition to panels I have an autographing session and a Kaffeeklatsch, so those are places where I am guaranteed to be in a way that you can at least tokenly converse with me if all other plans fall through!

I’ll also be at Nine Worlds, but there are couple of things still being ironed out in that schedule, hopefully to be posted tomorrow.

Better Worldbuilding Through Poetry
Thursday 16:30 – 18:00, Capital Suite 13 (ExCeL)

When you ask someone to think of poetry in SF and fantasy novels, they are liable to think first of the epic or pseudo-epic verse of Tolkien and his inheritors — language used to elevate and mythologise the world and the events they create. But poetry can be put to many and varied uses within larger works, as evidenced by such recent books as Anne Carson’s “Red Doc>” (a verse novel), Sofia Samatar’s “A Stranger in Olondria” (which includes poetry as imagined literary history), or Kim Stanley Robinson’s “2312” (prose-poems evoking AI consciousness). How do these and other SF and fantasy works use poetry to help create moods, worlds, or characters? What forms and what kinds of language are most common, and why? And to what extent is poetry contextual — are there examples of writing that we accept as the next page of a novel, but would treat as a poem if published separately?

Catherynne M. Valente (M), Jenny Blackford, Amal El-Mohtar, Greer Gilman, Neil Williamson

Autographing 2 – Amal El-Mohtar
Friday 11:00 – 12:00, Autographing Space (ExCeL)

Content and Form: Writing SF/F in non-Western Modes
Friday 13:30 – 15:00, Capital Suite 8 (ExCeL)

Sofia Samatar recently suggested that SF genre writers and readers have “a tendency to focus on content rather than form”, even or especially when engaging with marginalised perspectives. Does our genre inevitably tend towards the form and structure of western, English-language stories, regardless of what cultural tradition(s) are reflected in the content? How can a non-western or non-Anglophone writer engage with science fiction and fantasy while also operating outside of the conventions of western-style storytelling? Is it possible for western writers to engage with non-western traditions in an authentic way and produce a story that a wider audience will recognize as science fiction or fantasy? What are some of the different forms offered by non-western cultures that need to be told?

Amal El-Mohtar (M), Aliette de Bodard, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, JY Yang, Nick Wood

Saturday Morning Cartoons: The Next Generation
Friday 16:30 – 18:00, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)

Alongside the much-discussed golden age of animated cinema, we’re living in a golden age of animated TV. Shows such as Gravity Falls, Venture Brothers, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Adventure Time, and Avatar: The Last Airbender can be as clever, funny, politically challenging and emotionally sophisticated as any live-action show. This panel will discuss when and why the best of these shows work so well — as well as the constraints they still face, and whether some of them fall short of their ideals.

Amal El-Mohtar, Abigail Nussbaum (M), Abigail Sutherland, Andrew Ferguson

Saturday 11:00 – 12:00, London Suite 5 (ExCeL)

Kaffeeklatsches and Literary Beers are small group discussions with authors, artists, editors, and other interesting personalities. Kaffeeklatsches are located in the London Suite, and Literary Beers in the bar area of the Fan Village.

Sessions are limited to nine attendees, and advance signup is required. Overbooking is not allowed. Sign-up sheets will be available at the Information Desk the day before each session. Morning slots (those starting 10AM-1PM) will be available from 9:30AM on the morning before, and afternoon slots (from 2PM onwards) will be available at 2PM the afternoon before. Each person in line may sign up for only one kaffeeklatsch per session, and only one person per kaffeeklatsch (although you may sign up for someone other than yourself). You must provide the attendee’s badge name and number to sign up. Three reserve places will be available in case an attendee cancels a booking or does not show up.

Unfortunately we can provide drinks only for session hosts, so please feel free to bring your own drink with you.

Race and British SF
Saturday 13:30 – 15:00, Capital Suite 5 (ExCeL)

Four years ago, Tricia Sullivan threw a spotlight on the gender balance of SF authors published in the UK, leading to a continuing conversation that is — perhaps — finally having an effect. However, although other aspects of representation have been mentioned in the course of this conversation, they have rarely been the focus, and in particular it can be argued that UK fandom and publishing have not talked enough about race. To use the same barometer as Sullivan, only one writer of colour has ever won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and so far this century only three have been shortlisted. Yet the success of diversity-led events such as Nine Worlds suggests the audience is there. So what else should publishers and fannish institutions in the UK be doing to support writers of colour? Whose work should Loncon attendees rush to buy in the dealer’s room? And whose novels and stories are we eagerly anticipating?

Amal El-Mohtar (M), Tajinder Hayer, Stephanie Saulter, Russell Smith, Dev Agarwal

Full-Spectrum Fantasy
Saturday 18:00 – 19:00, Capital Suite 8+11 (ExCeL)

Fantasy stories often rely on Kings and Queens, a merchant or two, and occasionally a guttersnipe on his way to the top. What does a fantasy world look like when it’s shown from the point of view of people who aren’t usually the focus: people of colour, women, anyone who isn’t royalty (not even unwittingly)? Likewise, how often do we see engineers, union reps and factory workers in sf? Depicting multiple axes of human experience – a truly representative spectrum of gender, sexuality, race, class, and (dis)ability – honestly and with empathy can still be something of a radical progressive act in the world today. Which are the stories and series that attempt this, and how far do they succeed?

Mary Robinette Kowal (M), Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone, Keffy R. M. Kehrli, Jennifer Stevenson

Sindbad Sci-Fi presents The World at Worldcon: Arabic SF/F
Sunday 15:00 – 16:30, Capital Suite 8+11 (ExCeL)

Fantastical storytelling in Arabic doesn’t begin and end with The Thousand and One Nights; in fact, there is a long history of speculative fiction in Arabic, stretching all the way back to medieval intellectuals like al-Farabi and Ibn al-Nafis. This panel will explore the past, present and future of Arab and Arabic science fiction narratives, including authors writing in Arabic – such as Ahmed Khaled Towfik and Noura al-Noman – and the work of members of the Arab diaspora, such as Amal El-Mohtar and Saladin Ahmed.

Yasmin Khan (M), Ibrahim Abbas, Noura al-Noman, Yasser Bahjatt, Amal El-Mohtar


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Upcoming Appearances: Nine Worlds, LonCon3, Waterstone’s Glasgow Argyle St

I have existed in a near-constant state of travel since June 25, and it’s far from over! But here’s where I’ll be over the next two weeks:

August 8-10: Nine Worlds Geekfest 2014

I’m on the Doctor Who and LGBTQAI tracks, with confirmation of programme items pending.

August 14-18: LonCon3

I am on SO MUCH PROGRAMMING I may as well make a separate post for it! It all looks amazing, though.

August 21: An Evening with Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Waterstone’s Glasgow Argyle St
Tickets: Free, but call 0141 248 4814 to reserve.
Event Description:

We are pleased to announce an evening with the talented Ann and Jeff VanderMeer who will be in conversation with Glasgow’s masters of the fantastic: Amal El-Mohtar, Hal Duncan and Neil Williamson. Join us in a celebration of the weird and wonderful world of science fiction and fantasy with some of the genre’s most talented authors.

And there you have it! I love meeting new people, so please do feel free to walk up and introduce yourselves.


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Two Kickstarters: Alphabet of Embers & UNCANNY

I’m involved in the following two projects being funded through Kickstarter, and very excited about them both.

Launched by Rose Lemberg, a brilliant editor and writer whom I love and admire, An Alphabet of Embers is “an anthology of unclassifiables –- lyrical, surreal, magical, experimental pieces that straddle the border between poetry and prose.” Sofia Samatar has an impassioned post about it here.

With seven days to go the project is already funded and has reached two of its three stretch goals: black and white interior illustrations, and commissioning a song by the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours (of whom I am a third). Caitlyn Paxson, CSE Cooney and I began discussing the commission several weeks ago, when it was not yet a sure thing; I’m very glad it now is, because I think it’s going to be very special, something we’ve not yet done before, and something to level us up in our odd mélange of craft.

It’s also bursting with nifty incentives: Bogi Takács is sending out postcards with Ember Letters on them to people who back at $25 or more, Rose is periodically drawing whimsical creatures (OMG Sturgeon of Doubt!), and Kythryne Aisling of Wyrding Studios is offering Kickstarter-exclusive Firebird pendants as well as making jewellery themed around Ballads from a Distant Star, the not-so-secret Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadour project from which much of our show material comes.

If the project reaches $8K, the amazing Saira Ali of Kitabiyat Press will, on her 19th century letterpress, produce broadsides of a single story from AoE for all backers who pledged at the $45 level or higher. BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE! The famously mermaid-poem-averse Rose Lemberg will, with co-editor Shweta Narayan, edit a joke-issue of Stone Telling composed entirely of rhymed mermaid poetry.

Naturally, I intend to submit something.


Launched by Lynne and Michael Damien Thomas, Uncanny will be “A Professional Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature,” where each bi-monthly issue “will contain new and classic speculative fiction, fiction podcasts, poetry, essays, art, and interviews.” I’m committed to contributing fiction to its first year — as are such brilliant people as Sofia Samatar, Charlie Jane Anders, Liz Argall, Rachel Swirsky, Maria Dahvana Headley, Mary Robinette Kowal, Scott Lynch, Catherynne M. Valente, Paul Cornell, Ken Liu, Kat Howard, Hao Jingfang, E. Lily Yu, and some beardy unknown called Neil Gaiman.

Besides how diverse the first year looks to be, I’m delighted to see how many women are involved in the magazine’s structure and management, and am genuinely looking forward to writing for them. I can also vouch with absolute certainty for Lynne and Michael’s vision, skill, and kindness as editors, having been edited by them for Glitter & Mayhem and Queers Dig Time Lords.

So! Two Kickstarters, both alike in awesomeness, worthy of your attention and lucre. Go to!


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