Will Ellwood is a young man with big ideas. He wants to Get Excited and Make Things. He also wants to Get Excited and Change Things. Here, Will turns his not inconsiderable passion and intelligence on the field of speculative fiction and fantasy - what problems it faces, where it can go from here, and what we as writers and artists can do to inspire change. Have a read of this, then pop back here and leave some comments for Will.

Something is wrong with science fiction & fantasy. Speculative Fiction in general. This is something that has been bugging me for a few months now. Maybe longer. Maybe years. I have been told that my argument is a defence of all fiction. But SF is my first love, the literature of my teenage years ...READ MORE


harleQuinade said...

Interesting article, but I would like, if I may, to open debate:

Although it is an absolutely mute point, it is hard to say that "SF, as a genre, has been around for just over eighty years" - HG Wells, anyone? If we are only restricted to literature that refers to itself as SF, then we are lazering ourselves in the foot before we've even begun. If we are thinking about fiction, either speculative or ...or... is there any other form of fiction??, that takes scientific theories, breakthroughs or language as its starting point, then even Da Vinci's helicopter designs could be considered in the proper realm.

I don't get what you actually think is wrong with SF, other than that it is not "progressive" or "socially real" - both very tenous terms - Animal Farm is about as "socially real" as it gets, is it not?

As for density, try Peter Watts or Charles Stross...I can't remember the last time I read any SF that dealt with only one idea.

What would you like to read? If you can define that, then you can write it yourself. If not, you'll struggle to argue it.

But then, what do I know? I read Fighting Fantasy books in chrononumerical order.

Dwayne HyperDeath said...

We demand WPNZR forums.


Ginja said...

Debate is good. Debate forces me to think about my premise. I welcome debate.

To clarify my terms: by SF I mean speculative fiction, which covers the spectrum of fantasy, science fiction and horror. My cues will mostly, if not exclusively, taken from science fiction.

First your point about my picking the date of SF being about eighty years old. The Edger Rice Burroughs Tarzan and John Carter of Mars stories pre-date this figure. And there is of course HG Wells, Jules Verne, Mary Shelly, Jonathan Swift, Edger Alan Poe, Thomas Moore and others who are all were writing what we'd recognise as SF before this time. The reason I chose that figure however is because it roughly matches with the year of the publication of Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted just to science fiction. This magazine was edited by Hugo Grensback and launched in 1926.

Now for a genre to exist, I think, there has to be a certain amount of self reference. Genre is a set of rules applied to films, games, music and literature after all. So while certainly what we recognise as SF existed before the 1920s, and science fiction stories and fantasy and horror stories, were published before then. I argue that it is only in hindsight we can see this pattern, as it is only since around that time the language and genre conventions became, more or less, set in diamond. With the founding of Amazing Stories and other magazines like it in the 1920s, Science Fiction gained an identity that set it apart from other forms of Pulp Fiction.

Of course Weird Tales, home of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, was launched in 1923. So my date is a bit broad. My point here is admittedly quite weak; mostly it is a framing device so I didn't have to think about what could rapidly become all of human fiction.

It is also through Amazing Stories that SF fandom as we'd recognise started.

But I do agree with you. All fiction is by necessity speculative.

By progressive I do not mean politically liberal left-wing. Although that is certainly where my sympathies lie. What I mean here is really about the technique of writing. It feels to me that the actual writing in a lot of SF has become merely functional again. By no means the writing is as bad these days as Heinlien, Clarke and Asimov could be, but I certainly don't find Charles Stross' prose beautiful. Currently I just don't see the chances of anything as complex as "Stand on Zanzibar" being published any time soon. Or anything as word for word perfect as "Animal Farm" coming from the choir of SF fans.

I include myself here. I'm just not that good.

And I really like Charles Stross' work. It is always filled with ideas. But always around one central theme. Ken McCloud is good as well, and Cory Doctorow isn't bad either. But in a way that I cannot adequately describe they feel like old men writing about the present. Their work, for me, feels like they are addressing someone very much like me, but born ten or fifteen years earlier. Someone of their generation. Not mine. And I know this like sounds whiny complaints of someone embittered by their elders.

With some consideration my use of the words "social realism" was misjudged. It might be best to say what I am aiming for is a kitchen sink realism. Maybe.

I remember studying the work of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach in my A-Level film classes. I also remember really disliking the film "Secrets and Lies" at the time, but on reflection it is a film I got a lot out of. My point here being that I was able to identify with the characters because they are like you and me. Their problems are human problems.

However a long standing personal dislike of a lot fiction has often been the narrow focus on the rich and/or powerful. There's a reason I have never read "A Game of Thrones," and that is the reason. This however is a personal tic of mine. It might be a lack of imagination on my part.

Ginja said...

You ask me what I want to read. That's a hard question for me to answer. But the other night I did watch "Children of Men" again, and while thinking about this answer I came to the conclusion that I want to read more fiction that makes me feel the same way as I did when I watched that film.

This is a film that almost makes me cry at the end.

The mood of J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World is one that I want to experience more in literature as well.

It is likely that I cannot answer this specific question properly without going away and attempting to write more fiction that I might enjoy. The process of forming hypotheses, carrying out experiments, and then documenting their successes and failures.

That's what I'm trying anyway.


(My reply split into two because it's 600 characters too long.)

hQ said...

I misread this as: "Their work, for me, feels like they are addressing someone very much like me, but born ten or fifteen minutes earlier", which I think is a most perfect critique of SF that there can be...but "years"? Hmmm, not sure...

The problem of SF that addresses our generation (I'm just assuming we are in the same temporal tribe, echo bloomers and all that jazz), is that we don't, as a generation, stand for anything. Sure, the human world is fucked, and we protest, mumble, grumble and get angry - but ultimately, we have no cause. I would argue that we are the most unintentionally nihilistic generation so far....

But this is a wider problem affecting all literature. It's also why there are no decent punk bands for our generation.

But what it means is that it's hard to capture our imagination with original issues.

Couple that fact with the notion that every great idea has already been written, and where can we go from there: re-writes, postmodern meta-fiction, crossovers, tributes.... All of which I find, and I get the impression you do too, unsatisfying.

My problem with SF is that it is self-referential and the most effective for me, as with any other genres, is that which pushes the boundaries of what the genre constitutes. Philip K Dick, Bill Burroughs, Illuminatis Trilogy, House of Leaves etc...

I have an opposite thought on density. I think a lot of modern SF gets bogged down in barrages of terminology, which I hate. Don't get me wrong - I love lists as literature (if you've never read Rabelais, it's highly recommended), but a lot of SF feels like incompetent run throughs of technical terms culled from scientific papers, other writer's stories, or just fabricated - at the expense of being a good yarn.

I always preferred the term phil-fi or, as John Wyndham preferred, 'logical fantasy'.

It all comes down to what you want your reading to do to you: entertain? educate? inspire? challenge? confuse? For my money, I want my SF to fuck my brain up.

Texture AKA Bram E. Gieben said...

I'm gonna weigh in on this one very briefly.

What I took from Will's essay was a dissatisfaction with the intellectual meat of cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk. Essentially, as soon as cyberpunk dated (eg. the lack of mobile phones in William Gibson and Bruce Streling), we automatically traded the grimy 'realism' of Neuromancer for the shiny 'super-real' of The Matrix. The cyberpunk landscape hasn't really changed since Neuromancer - it has become a world in itself, one that is as anachronistic in terms of present-day tech as the world of say, Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. It has become a style, a set of motifs - and as such, it has lost its intellectual punch. I enjoy books like 'Altered Carbon' by Richard A. Morgan, but the virtual reality / overcrowded cities / drugs and guns pallette he writes with are far from original.

I think what Will was bemoaning was the lack of authors who can look beyond this, and create new, original, believable future worlds.

I take hQs point that Stross has achieved a lot in terms of escaping or remodelling cyberpunk tropes. I would also argue that Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is still cyberpunk, but radically different - in that it traces the roots of the information boom backwards, as opposed to forwards. But, I would argue, Stross has never bettered Accelerando (in SF, at least), and Stephenson's historical fictions are not enjoyable in the same way as a ripping good SF yarn.

There are ideas a-plenty in Iain M Banks' work too - but through the lens of space opera, his ideas are freed from any direct speculative link to our present.

I agree with the thrust of Will's argument - that we have very few writers today engaging with the social issues, technological issues, and cultural issues that face our (admittedly apathetic) generation. How we move forward with this is another matter - when I write SF, I frequently find myself trapped in self-consciously cyperpunk territory.

I think it would be an interesting experiment to try and visualise a new discourse for SF - one that is defiantly post-cyberpunk, without dismissing the work of Gibson, Stross, or indeed trying to replicate it.

Reading Brunner was a revelation for me - until I read Stand on Zanzibar, I thought that cyberpunk began specifically with Gibson... seeing how much influence Brunner had on Gibson was inspiring, as it made me realise that even writers I consider GREAT struggle to transcend their influences.

I think if Brunner were to try and publish Zanzibar today, he would probably find a home for it. Brunner was far from being the most respected SF author of his time, but he influenced a generation of writers, from Gibson to Warren Ellis and beyond. So perhaps the writers who give birth to whatever 'the new style' is to be will be less influenced by the well-known names, and more influenced by underground, 'difficult' writers.

I'm excited by this whole debate. I don't think we can reinvent the wheel, but we can certainly transcend our influences. We just haven't done it yet.

For the record, I think that the next wave of revolutionary SF will be interactivbe in some way - I think the intersection between SF and Alternative Reality Gaming is bound to produce some interesting results. What better a medium to transcend inert paper than science fiction?

Ginja said...


I'm twenty-three. But this generational nihilism covers quite a few years. From the tail end of Generation X to the horribly named Generation Y, which apparently I belong to.

Yeah, we have no real causes. We have a doomed world, but we've always lived in a doom world. It is our inheritance. We don't even have nice black and white problems like the Cold War to worry about. Everything is too complex now for us to give a damn about.

The big picture is too big and we haven't, yet, as a society designed the mental tools that will let us see it.

Thinking about this reminds me of a comment Brian Eno made on the Arena doc that aired the other week. He was talking about how "young-people" consume music. The fact that music festivals are more popular now. As a generation, we are less interested in consuming music by actually listening to it. The trend seems to be towards having shared social experiences where music is the catalyst.

Extending this idea outwards, this is also how many people now consume literature. Being a fan of a specific franchise is more important than reading widely.

Also the act of protesting is now more important that believing in the cause. I was told a story of how quite recently a friend went to an Amnesty International society meeting at university where the group discussion was about finding something to protest just so they could go on a protest.

Consumerism applies to everything now. That's going to be in the running for the most nihilistic statement I make today.

Well maybe not.

Oh, I agree with you fully with part of the problem being artillery barrages of neologisms and terminology. I did mention that SF should focus more on character and less on the surface details, didn't I?

How I feel about density is that good fiction should attempt to cover more than one problem. Or at least acknowledge that the problem which is the crux of the story being told isn't the only problem in the fictional world.

Because it can't be the only problem. Nothing is that simple.

Even the idea that every great idea has already been written I find simple. You are right in that I find re-writes, meta-fiction, crossovers and all that jazz unsatisfying. Seems far too much like apathetic laze.

My approach to writing fiction is to watch the world. I write to attempt to understand. Not simply to describe; since that would be the job of journalism, but to in the space that fiction provides to treat ideas like Lego. SF's self-references is just the shape of the bricks. It gets exciting when someone makes a brick that's a new shape.

But I also think that SF is at its best when only a small number of the genre tropes are used. See Children of Men.

What do I want out of fiction? For me it comes down to John Reith's purpose for the BBC. I want to be educated, informed and entertained.

Liam said...

A very interesting article. I'll admit I'm not familiar with some of the works being argued, and I obviously haven't read as much as HQ, but have a fairly healthy knowledge of sci-fi, so...

"These tropes, our metaphorical tools, are getting in the way of what makes SF interesting. We have stopped reading thought experiments that tell us more about our present situation. We have started to read abstract descriptions of impossible or implausible things because it takes us to a comfortable place."

I'd disagree with this, though I'll admit to enjoying the ridiculousness of Sci-fi, and the texture of the backdrop. Transmetropolitan is one of my constantly re-read companions; it's sociological commentary, it's great narrative, and yes, I like to retreat into a technicolour world of feedsites, nano-machinery, and all the associated sci-fi pulp (that 'comfortable place'). However, I'm not sure that these serve as a distraction - I think that a good backdrop serves to illustrate an argument better. Pretty much everything I've read by Heinlien has some central point about tribe / family / military service / citizenship / community etc
(Disclaimer; I don't agree with Heinlein on everything, his militant view is total pish).
By creating a different` allegorical framework to explore these concepts within each novel, he's able to give weight to his argument, and use them as theoretical case studies each time. There's actually very few masturbatory ray-gun fantasies, even when he's dealing with the military - look at Starship Troopers or Citizen of the Galaxy (though the film of the former is macho-yankee gun-porn). I'd also Cite Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea novels for sidelining wand-wankery in favour of character-based narrative and analysis of gender issues.

HQ asks what you consider the point of Sci-fi... When I choose sci-fi novels over any other kind of fiction, it's to enjoy the created world as much as to immerse myself in a narrative and find intellectual stimulus - for this reason, I like my sci-fi / Fantasy psychadelic and intense, as well as intellectually challenging. I admit this is a fairly narrow selection.

I'm also a bit dubious of social-realism as an aim; that's a heavily-loaded term with a seriously didactic origin. I kinda see what you mean about "kitchen sink" realism though, and I'd agree that yeah, the psychadelic aspects I'm claiming to like are often a distraction from the meat of a good novel, and can leave you with nothing but vapid descriptions of technology. Looking forward to seeing how you manage to carry it all out.

Ginja said...


I think you have the gist of my argument. I think the fact that Cyberpunk dated badly with the lack of mobile phones isn't a problem. We all, hopefully, acknowledge that SF is always about the present that it is written in. Since the canon texts of Cyberpunk were written before mobile phones it is no problem that they don't appear in these stories. I just accept that he's writing about the late seventies and early eighties. Stuff I wrote last year about next year didn't have the iPad in after all.

I keep saying that all SF speculation about the future (or the past even) is wrong. There might be nugget of truth and an accurate prediction or two. But only in the broadest sense. The purpose of SF after all isn't to predict the future; that's the job of a futurist.

But like Bram says, it has become a set of motifs. Cyberpunk roleplaying games are about the gear and the chrome. Not about being on the low rung of a technological society and fighting for survival. And that has diluted Cyberpunk.

Again the only way I can see to avoid this, in order to create futures that are interesting to look at from *our* present is to strip down our futures and in some way acknowledge that the future will be mundane. It'll look pretty much like now. Only with stuff we can't predict in the background.

I agree also that Stross has never bettered Accelerando. I also think that Neal Stephenson's best book is still Cryptonomicon. However, I am only a third of the way through the Baroque Cycle so I cannot comment too much on that. But for me Cryptonomicon, is a good example of a novel which has a depth and density of ideas and problems in it that go beyond technology.

I don't know how we move forwards. I know that a lot of my fiction currently looks a lot of like it is set in the real world. And that on a first casual reading, contains little that differentiates it from mainstream literature. If that means I am borrowing and am being influenced by Cyberpunk, then so be it.

How I move beyond my influences, comics, literature, music or film, and transcend them again I don't know. I might not be in the right position to say that I am doing such a thing. Since I am in the one sitting in the chair writing. Practice and experimentation is probably the method. But it will require other people to tell me that I've reached above my influences.

In short being prodigiously prolific is the only way forwards.

I'm not quite convinced that the next wave needs to be interactive. It can be. There's a fascinating indie-rpg designed by Luke Crane (writer of Burning Wheel) and Jared Sorensen called FreeMarket which looks interesting in terms of using game mechanics to support the themes and ideas of the game.

I have the PDF on my computer somewhere.

For good SF games I suggest you look up Cold City and Hot War, both by Malcolm Craig and published by the Edinburgh based Contested Ground Studios. The rules of the game are set up explicitly to drive the experience in a specific direction.

Shame about the lack of decent punk rock.

Ginja said...


My point there is that in Transmet, Heinlein when he's on the ball, and LeGuin pretty much all the time (I really like Ursula LeGuin) is that they've managed to find the tension between using the tools that SF gives them and character. The use of these tools draws the characters and the world depicted in more detail. In these cases they aren't getting in the way.

Or they've gone and used these tools to illustrate an argument, but done it well. Which is great. Thomas Moore's Utopia is about that. So is Frankenstien, it is one of the oldest forms of SF. But when it is done badly (see late period Arthur C. Clarke) is is not good.

But in each case they haven't been inserted into the fiction as a paint by numbers exercise.

tom said...

Great essay Ginja, and good to see some discussion firing up. I'm a massive SF fan myself, and can't resist responding to a couple of the points you make. Apologies in advance for the mighty wall'o'text that follows...

"With the founding of Amazing Stories and other magazines like it in the 1920s, Science Fiction gained an identity that set it apart from other forms of Pulp Fiction."

I think I'd try to argue that it's a mistake to think of SF as necessarily apart from fiction in general. It's a genre, not a different art form. It's just the tag we use to refer to that region of the fiction spectrum that mostly deals with certain kinds of ideas. Those kinds of ideas were, as you pointed out later, being explored long before the start of SF fandom. So I'm not sure that we should agree so quick that we can ignore work that preceeded what it now pleases me to dub "The Birth of Global Sci-Fi Consciousness"...

I wouldn't try to pin down a starting point for SF stories, geez, I have a feeling ultimately you're gonna end up at the bible. Or earlier; you could make a case that the Ring of Gyges is a kind of prototype SF story (by way of Alfred Bester). But even something like Frankenstein (1818) plays heavily on the same fears and wonder at the possibilities of science which is the hallmark of all the most enjoyable (for me anyway) SF.

Poverty of ideas seems a strange affliction for a genre with the seemingly limitless possibilities of sci-fi but it's true the evidence is everywhere. Read (almost) any SF book or comic, watch any SF movie or play any SF game and the same things come up over and over. The same technologies, the same ideas, the same terrible dilemmas. Plasma cannons and warp engines, particle beams and jump drives are the familiar furniture of the 'comfortable place'. It's not integral to the story, it doesn't need to be because we all know all about it already. And there's the problem. They're just the variables in the escapist formula. Now, escapism is not necessarily bad, it brings a lot of pleasure to a lot of people - just ask Mills&Boon - but that's not what SF is about. Let them have their escapism Will, they need it. But let's not forget that we are primarily here, readers and writers, to discuss how we will interface with the future.

When SF stories stop being about the relationship between people and technology, or how technology affects relationships between people, then they stop being SF. They become SF-flavoured fiction product. Eg: any Warhammer 40k book. Even the (very few) better ones have more in common with George MacDonald Fraser than they do with Larry Niven or Ray Bradbury.

I think it's an important distinction to make. Your local branch of whatever booksellers it is that hasn't gone bust yet may be blind to the grave categorical error they are making by putting the latest spin-off novels for Stargate up there with the Rudi Rucker but there's no reason for us to concede right off the bat that anything with quantum computers and renegade nanites in it is, by definition, SF.

Neal Stephenson is great on this. SF as idea porn. It's not enough just to set a story in a recognisably sci-fi universe. The story itself needs to engage directly with the central tensions of the genre. If not, then Independence Day is SF. I think that's why Stephenson pushes the whole speculative fiction deal, to be honest. Bloody anything can be called sci-fi now. I think he's trying to reserve some space for what the genre *should* be about. What it is when it's done right. What sci-fi used to mean. (sobs)

tom said...

"By no means the writing is as bad these days as Heinlien, Clarke and Asimov could be, but I certainly don't find Charles Stross' prose beautiful. Currently I just don't see the chances of anything as complex as "Stand on Zanzibar" being published any time soon."
I've never read Stand on Zanzibar, though it's now firmly on my list after a little wiki investigation, thanks. I'm wary of idealising the ability to write beautifully. I think storytelling ability is much more important and I think Charlie Stross has that. With a strong story, the writer can be an invisible presence. The last thing I want in the middle of a good yarn is to be distracted by someone flexing their flowery vocabulary and preening themselves over a splendidly stylish turn of phrase.

Our Esteemed Guv'nor of the Capella Blanca is particularly good at getting this balance right I reckon. The narrative momentum does most of the hard work and the description and dialogue is often (hilariously) inconsequential. You could say he's terse, but only if you meant as terse as someone smoking a giant poison cigar through gritted teeth while skateboarding up a mountain to get away from you and all your damn fool questions about the story.

Admittedly, when you say 'these days' I'm not sure what you mean. I still think one of the best SF books ever written is Distraction (1998) by Bruce Sterling. I guess that's practically a historical text these days. Still feels pretty fresh to me though. A ton of different ideas all woven in together, plenty of meaty social comment on an almost blindingly broad range of issues and crucially, lots of space given to actually looking at how technology has changed, is changing or could change the way that people relate to each other. To pluck a single example from what is an awesomely idea-dense book: it was the first place that I saw the term "Network Trust Economy" which is an idea with potentially profound implications and the kind of thing that is the reason I read SF in the first place. Sure it starts off with a flashmob riot (of sorts) - and those are like, sooooo last season - and the ending is kind of a shambles, but inbetween it paddles like crazy.

tom said...

Bram: "I think what Will was bemoaning was the lack of authors who can look beyond this, and create new, original, believable future worlds."

Right, but world-building is yet another skill. As distinct from storytelling or writing, that is. A writer can create a believable world with just a few broad brush strokes and a few fine ones, the story itself need not be specifically concerned with the world it is set in, as such, in order to be a good story - even in SF. This is particularly true of short stories of course. In fact, because of the effect noted by you guys already - namely that actual technological change consistently embarrasses even the most prescient futurists - I might even suggest that the more incidental 'kitchen sink' type details that go into the building of a SF world, the faster it will date and come to seem ludicrously short-sighted.

I'm not saying world-building is not a cool thing to do, just that it's not the same as telling the story. For contrasting examples look at Tolkien - arguably the most influential world-building writer EVAR but a ruinously lethargic storyteller - and China Mieville - spookily awesome world-builder, inflammably psychedelic writer and loving, sweet and psychotically brutal storyteller -Gah, just go and read Perdido Street Station if you haven't already, you'll see what I mean). Towards the other end of the scale I guess you have someone like Michael Marshall Smith who tends to leave the details of his worlds somewhat hazy and focuses instead on rushing the story along in the immediate presence of the main characters. We only [i]need[/i] to know about the world in as much as it relates directly to the action of the story. Extraneous detail provides flavour and colour and richness of texture but it can just as easily obscure and frustrate the flow of the narrative.

If I remember rightly, one of Alan Grant's rules of story was that action has to flow from the characters. For my money, this is what makes William Gibson such a great storyteller, as well as being a writer and futurist and whatever else. His characters are really engaged with their worlds, the realness of their interactions with his universes is what gives the staying power to all those tales of fancy, new-fangled hypotheticals. - As an aside, I think too much is being made of mobile phones; we're assuming that they won't all just be replaced with something much better in the next ten years and either disappear or change beyond recognition.

I tend to agree with Bram that ARGs look like the storytelling medium where the wildest innovations are going to come from in the short-term, but what that's going to look like? I almost shudder to think, in a not entirely unpleasant way.

Sorry about all that, you can have your blog back now :P

"I want my SF to fuck my brain up." Oh yes.

Liam said...

"However a long standing personal dislike of a lot fiction has often been the narrow focus on the rich and/or powerful. There's a reason I have never read "A Game of Thrones," and that is the reason. This however is a personal tic of mine. It might be a lack of imagination on my part."

Re-reading the article and the associated posts, I picked up on this quote, and started thinking more about what social-realist or kitchen sink fiction would mean; portraying the base level of society and their problems, whilst still exploring the same futurist or probable technology environment. Thought I'd add a little to it.
I gotta agree that there is a lack of working class/ daily grind / jobless / whatever characters in a lot of sci-fi, and those that do exist inevitable end up ascending to royalty / courtly level. I reckon Neal Stephenson does pretty well for portraying all levels of the social fabric in The Diamond Age. Then again, the whole narrative is about Nell's passing through, then transcending the classes...
Similarly with Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, there's a fair amount of the working class / trader life, though there's the same old Scion narrative - surprise inheritance, becoming something more, destiny revealed. Most computer games, you level up your weapons and aim for more power, bigger guns, greater rank etc. Star Wars is even worse, but no-one was ever arguing George Lucas was a revolutionary storyteller...
I'm not sure if it's automatically a fault that sci-fi often focusses this way, but I can see there's obviously room for more expansive narratives and a focus on all levels of society.

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