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H.G. Wells' The Time Machine: A Christian Perspective

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  • H.G. Wells' The Time Machine: A Christian Perspective

    To understand this essay, it would be better to have read the book, rather than have watched the movie adaptations.


    The original story by H.G. Wells applying the concept of time travel was published as a serial in the Science Schools Journal under the title, “The Chronic Argonauts.” But several years later, when asked by an editor to rewrite the story for publication, Wells decided to write an entirely different story. Whereas the first story had in it much of the adventures found in current time travel stories, the final form of The Time Machine has very little action, and contains extensive sections where the situation of man in the future is studied, compared to the author’s contemporary (nineteenth century) conditions, and is explained in a system of theories.

    The Time Machine is a story saturated with pessimism, chiefly from the influence of Thomas Henry Huxley, whose interpretations of theories of Charles Darwin developed the concept of “Cosmic Pessimism.” Three areas of pessimism are presented by Wells in the story: pessimism about mankind’s ability to achieve an ideal society through scientific progress and socialist actions, pessimism about the ultimate effect evolution would have on the human race, and pessimism about mankind’s willingness to take the necessary actions that would prevent its eventual decline. This third area of pessimism, dealing with “Victorian complacency,” can be clearly seen when the story is interpreted, not as a science fiction story, but rather as an allegory about Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and the Victorian society of the nineteenth century as seen by Wells.

    The main part of the story expresses the pessimistic view of mankind’s ability to achieve a utopian society through the conquest of nature by science and through the success of socialism in overthrowing the class system that separates capitalist from laborer. Through the Time Traveller’s eyes we see the future and through his mind we see how civilization drifts toward its ultimate destiny. Wells uses a principle found in romantic poetry,1 in which a series of three ideas is presented, each idea superseding the one before it. The Time Traveller presents three theories explaining how civilization had progressed over the years to the year 802701. Each time he develops a theory, he learns more about that civilization which forces him to abandon or alter his previous theory. By the time he reaches his third theory, the story presents civilization as pure nightmare.


    The first stage begins as the Time Traveller arrives in the future. He finds himself in what appears to be a paradise. The entire landscape is one vast garden, free from disease or harmful plants. Large palaces had replaced individual homes, suggesting to the Time Traveller that communism had won over capitalism.2 Many of his observations parallel Wells’ own idealist concepts of socialism which he developed during his years at the Normal School in South Kensington (1884-1887). There was a revival of socialist activity at that time3 and many sects held weekly meetings which attracted young radicals. Wells and his acquaintances frequented such meetings at the Kelmscott house, where they were introduced to the various philosophies of specialists, Fabians, communists, anarchists, feminists and vegetarians (not a diet, but rather a philosophy that the unnecessary killing of animals is cruel, and can lead to a disregard for human life. This is also known as humanitarian vegetarianism) who would preach their philosophies into the late hours of the night.4 At a meeting in Hammersmith Wells heard Bernard Shaw promoting Fabianism and declared himself a socialist.5 As the Time Traveller looks at the Eloi, the man in the future, he learns that he is entirely frugivorous; because there is no longer any need for specialization of the sexes due to their different tasks in society, men and women look very similar both in clothing and appearance; because there is no longer a need to protect offspring there is no longer a family unit; there is no evidence of property rights among the inhabitants; there is communal living; and there is obviously birth and population control. But because there is no longer any pain and suffering in this scientifically-altered environment, humanity has become week and feeble.6

    The first theory mixes optimism with pessimism. Like the optimism of the English philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer, Wells believed that progress is possible, but requires human effort; it doesn’t come naturally.7 Education can lead to the advancement of humanity. But there is the pessimistic side which evidences influence from Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. For humanity to improve itself there must be a successful adaptation to the environment. But as a result of man’s adaptation he has learned to control his environment until the environment is forced to adapt to man. Once that happens, man no longer needs to struggle for survival. The weak can survive as well as the strong and are no longer weeded out of humanity. It is no longer the survival of the fittest, and humanity is on the decline.
    Herbert Spencer.jpg
    Herbert Spencer

    Then the Time Traveller comes across a strange creature. It looks human, but is different from the Eloi. It is another species of man, one that lives in darkness below the surface and works on machines. He realizes that there has been no socialist progress at all. The gap between capitalist and the worker has widened even further, until they have become two different species. Looking back to his own era, he sees the beginnings of these trends. He describes how the less pleasant tasks of society are beginning to be done underground. He mentions the underground Metropolitan Railway, the East End workers who live and work in artificial conditions underground, and even the increase of underground workrooms and restaurants. He also mentions how the more luxurious areas of society are already shut off from the working class, and how higher education, available only to the rich, helps to widen the gap between the classes even further.8 Wells carries the concept of the underground worker into a later story, When the Sleeper Wakes, published in 1899. It describes the Labour Company, whose workers and their families spend their entire lives underground. Eventually they become a distinct species and speak their own dialect.9

    The influence of Thomas Henry Huxley on H.G. Wells’ scientific romances has been recognized as far back as 1915.10 Huxley gave his famous Romanes lecture, entitled “Evolution and Ethics,” at Oxford University in 1893. In that lecture he discussed his concept of “Cosmic Pessimism.” According to Huxley, evolution is a biological fact intended neither for the benefit nor for the detriment of man. It will never result in any social or moral improvement in humanity. Aggressiveness in man is the result of millions of years of evolutionary training and cannot be eradicated. Human nature does not change.
    Thomas Huxley.jpg
    Thomas Henry Huxley

    Despite Huxley’s tremendous influence upon Wells, this is one area where Wells was not yet quite willing to agree with Huxley. He still believed that man could be reformed, and that if humanity heeded his warning it could face a Utopian civilization instead of decline. It was this flickering ray of hope that led to his writing of three books dealing with the concept of a Utopian society where government would eventually disappear simply out of nothing to do: no laws to enforce, no disputes to settle. In In the Days of the Comet (1906), the comet spreads a substance into the atmosphere which eliminates suffering, disease, cruelty, giving way to the Great Change where free love is acceptable and the family structure is no longer needed. The Shape of Things to Come (1933) predicted a World War in 1940, followed by a Utopian society made of humans who have learned their lesson about war, with Samurai who set out to enforce this Utopia against those who still want to make war. In Men Like Gods (1923) a traveler chances upon a Utopian town that no longer needs government or Samurai to enforce its conduct.

    But if a Utopian society is to come about, it must be through human effort, particularly through socialism. Wells quotes himself from an article on the Labour Unrest in a 1912 issue of The Daily Mail:

    “I have pointed out that nearly all the social forces of our time seem to be in conspiracy to bring about the disappearance of a labour class as such and the rearrangement of our work and industry upon a new basis. That rearrangement demands an unprecedented national effort and the production of an adequate National Plan. Failing that, we seem doomed to a period of chronic social conflict and possibly even of frankly revolutionary outbreaks that may destroy us altogether or leave us only a dwarfed and enfeebled nation....”11
    Wells saw this possibility of hope, but the chances of this hope successfully restraining the fall of man seemed unlikely. He saw education of the masses as the hope of mankind, if it could lead to a thirst for advancement. And yet the best that he could hope for was to postpone man’s ultimate decline.12


    1. Frank McConnell, The Science Fiction of H.G. Wells (New York: Oxford University Press; 1981) 82.
    2. Wells, The Time Machine, iv.
    3. Norman & Jeanne MacKenzie, H.G. Wells: A Biography. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973.) 62.
    4. MacKenzie, 62.
    5. Lovat Dickson, H.G. Wells, His Turbulent Life and Times. (New York: Atheneum, 1969.) 35.
    6. Wells, TTM, iv.
    7. Jack Williamson, H.G. Wells: Critic of Progress. (Baltimore: The Mirage Press; 1973). 26-29.
    8. Wells, TTM v.
    9. Mark R. Hillegas, The Future as Nightmare, H.G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians. (Carbondale IL: Southern Illinois University Press; 1967.) 46-47.
    10. Richard Hauer Costa, H.G. Wells. (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc.; 1967. 22.)
    11. H.G. Wells, Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866). (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co.; 1967). 568. (Originally published in 1934.)
    12. Williamson, 26-29.
    Last edited by Faber; 10-26-2020, 08:02 PM.

  • #2



    All animal life had become extinct, yet the Time Traveller learns that the Morlocks -- the underground species of man -- are carnivorous, and he wonders what kind of meat they could be eating. He denies the obvious in his mind, but eventually has to face the fact that the Morlocks have been herding the Eloi -- the descendants of the upper class -- like cattle for food. He then develops his third theory: that the Morlocks, still struggling against their environment for survival, provide the Eloi with all their needs as they always have, but butcher them for food.13 The Time Traveller finds himself trapped in a nightmare world.

    Not only does Wells see the theory of evolution as failing to improve human nature, but he also sees it as the cosmic process that will eventually destroy the human race. Evolution demands that the various species adapt to new conditions. Those life forms which cannot adapt become extinct. This evolutionary force is not a benevolent force meant for man’s benefit; it is a natural force that can lead downward just as well as it can lead upward. Huxley warned that once the decline begins man will not have the power or the intelligence to stop it. To Wells, it was not only man’s failure to strive to better himself through science and socialism that will lead to his fall; it was also the basic principles of evolution as taught by Huxley. This is his second area of pessimism.

    In the description of the Morlocks evolution can be seen leading downward. The Morlock which the Time Traveller sees walks crouched, apelike, is nimble, and has no written or spoken language. The Eloi demonstrate evolution branching off in the other direction. It is interesting to compare Wells’ description of the Eloi with an observation he records in “The Man of the Year Million,” an essay he wrote originally in 1885 for the college’s Debating Society, and later published in the Pall Mall Gazette:

    We notice this decay of the animal part around us now, in the loss of teeth and hair, in the dwindling hands and feet of men, in their smaller jaws, and lighter mouths and ears....

    The coming man, then, will clearly have a larger brain, and a slighter body than the present.14
    The Eloi have taken on some of these characteristics:

    Their hair, which was uniformly curly, came to a sharp end at the neck and cheek; there was not the faintest suggestion of it on the face, and their ears were singularly minute. The mouths were small.... The eyes were large and mild.15
    The Eloi, representing a progressive evolution, are beginning to take on some of the characteristics of the Man of the Year Million, while the Morlocks are beginning to resume some of the apelike traits.

    When Wells rewrote the original story in its novel form, he added a view of the distant future, thirty million years from now,16 Now along the shore of a sea, he sees large carnivorous crablike creatures, one of which almost eats him. But hadn’t all animal life become extinct? Where, then, did these creatures come from? Could they be the distant descendants of the Morlocks in their evolutionary decline? Unfortunately, Wells is no longer around to answer that question, and I don’t know of anyone else who ever asked him.

    The Time Traveller travels further into the future in leaps of a thousand years at a time. The sun is now a huge, brown disk that hangs permanently over one part of the sky. The dying earth, dimly illuminated by the ancient sun, is in the last years of its life. The large crablike creatures are no longer around. But the Time Traveller can barely make out something moving through the midday twilight:

    ...I saw again the moving thing upon the shoal - there was no mistake now that it was a moving thing - against the red water of the sea. It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about.17
    Wells once described something similar to it:
    In the center of this transparent chameleon-tinted dome is a circular white marble basin filled with some clear, mobile, amber liquid, and in this plunge and float strange beings. Are they birds?

    They are the descendants of man - at dinner. Watch them as they hop on their hands.... Their whole muscular system, their legs, their abdomens, are shrivelled to nothing, a dangling, degraded pendant to their minds.18
    It is the Man of the Year Million! The Eloi, in the dying earth thirty million years into the future, once returns to the sea in which, according to Darwin and Huxley, it had originated. Snowflakes drift down to the cold planet’s surface, and the Time Traveller finds the thin atmosphere unbreathable. Wells tops off Huxley’s Cosmic Pessimism with some of the principles he picked up from Lord Kelvin in describing the dying earth and the running down of the solar system.19


    Wells’ third area of pessimism deals with Victorian Complacency’s unwillingness to heed his warnings and act upon them. Unlike the earlier areas of pessimism, this third area is hidden deeply in the symbolism of the story.
    Huxley, for example, is symbolized in the Time Traveller himself, who is described as “an Eminent Scientist.”20 The narrator says,

    I, for my own part, cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man’s culminating time! I say, for my own part. He, I know -- for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made -- thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilisation only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end.21
    Pure Huxley! And just as Huxley/Time Traveller is purely pessimistic about mankind’s destiny, the narrator reflects H.G. Wells, with his faith in, and great respect for, Huxley, yet still with his reluctance to accept his Cosmic Pessimism without a slight ray of hope.

    Wells attended the Normal School at South Kensington from 1884 to 1887. In his first year there he took a biology course under Huxley. Although Wells describes the course as strictly scientific in nature, he claims that Huxley opened his eyes to the needs of the world.22 Whether or not this is the case can be disputed. Mackenzie23 suggest(s) that emotional rebellion aroused from the writings of John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle may have been the cause of his newly adopted socialist concern. At any rate, Wells did lose interest in his plans to become a scientist the next year, and spent time reading socialist literature instead of his textbooks, even on the eve of his final examination. He did very poorly in his second year at Normal School, and failed in his third year. It became his goal to warn the human race to turn to socialism to avert the fate that Huxley predicted. His series of Scientific Romances were written with the purpose of shocking Victorian Complacency, which believed that progress was inevitable.24

    Just how far did Wells carry his symbolism in the story? By studying his life, his beliefs, and influences on his thinking it appears that the entire story is an allegory: not only full of symbolism, but dramatizing the interaction of those symbols.

    The time machine can be identified with Darwin’s second treatise on evolution, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, written in 1871. It provided the vehicle through which Huxley could travel back to man’s origins or ahead to his distant future.


    If anything can be considered evidence of symbolism, it must be the huge white sphinx. The Time Traveller describes it as huge, worn with age, diseased and smiling at him as it appears to be watching him.25 Later in the story, the time machine is stolen and locked up inside the sphinx, preventing his access to it. It would make sense to assume the sphinx represents the established churches of Wells’ day, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. Wells had nothing but contempt for any religion that proclaimed a God of retribution or looked down scornfully upon his sexual obsessions. He rejected his religious training from his parents, took whatever opportunities he could to condemn Christianity. And the Church’s objection to Darwin’s theory of evolution was his perfect opportunity to attack it verbally.

    But why an Egyptian sphinx? Wells wrote many years later, “In many of the darkened, incense-saturated churches, I felt Old Egypt and its mysteries still living and muttering."26 In explaining his rejection of his religious upbringing he blasts Christian doctrine as “these synthesised Egyptian and Syrian myths”.27 In The Outline of History, he goes into greater detail. He claims that the doctrine of the Trinity can be traced to a merger of three deities of ancient Greece and Egypt into one under Ptolemy I. The resurrection and immorality of the soul are traced back to worship of the Egyptian deity Serapis. The concept of the Son of God to intercede for sinners, he traces to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. He even claims that the robes of the priests and ministers were patterned after the robes in the temple of Isis and Serapis. Many of the hymns and phrases used in Christian worship supposedly originated from Egyptian religion.28 He ties Sunday worship to the cult of Isis-Serapis-Horus along with the legend of the adoration of the shepherds. Jesus is in actuality Horus, the son of Serapis, and Mary His mother is really Isis.29 In picturing the time machine as locked up inside the sphinx, Wells is portraying the established churches in their efforts to suppress the teachings of Charles Darwin on evolution. And just as the Time Traveller finally succeeds in snatching the time machine away from the aged, great white sphinx, we see Huxley as Darwin’s greatest supporter, succeeding in defeating the religious establishment and winning public acceptance of Darwin’s theory. In the 1850s even the medical universities, because of their religious associations, resisted the teaching of evolutionary theory in biology classes. It was through the efforts of Huxley that the universities eventually adopted the theory of evolution.

    13. Wells, TTM vii.
    14. Wells, “The Man of the Year Million. A Scientific Forecast.” Pall Mall Gazette, November 6, 1893 (No. 57.8931) 3. Reprinted in Pall Mall Budget, November 16, 1893 (No. 1312) 1796-1797.
    15. Wells, TTM, iv.
    16. Wells, TTM, xi.
    17. Idem.
    18. Wells; “The Man of the Year Million.” Pall Mall Budget, November 16, 1893 (No. 1312.)1796-1797.
    19. Mackenzie, 120.
    20. Wells, TTM, ii.
    21. Wells, TTM, epilogue.
    22. Wells. Experiment, 19.
    23. Mackenzie, 62.
    24. Hillegas, 17; Williamson, 74.
    25. Wells, TTM, iii.
    26. Wells, Experiment, 486.
    27. Ibid., 46.
    28. Wells, Outline of History, Book V Chapter 23.
    29. Op. cit., Book VI Chapter 28.
    Attached Files
    Last edited by Faber; 10-26-2020, 08:24 PM.


    • #3



      But Huxley/Time Traveller still faces criticism and opposition. There are those who listen to him, some who criticize him; there are those who make fun of him, who argue with him and ridicule him. But some are impressed at his science. Wells lists his audiences: an argumentative man named Filby; a Provincial Mayor; a Medical Man, a Very Young Man, a Psychologist; Blank, the Editor of a well-known daily newspaper; a certain Journalist; and a Silent Man (also described as a quiet, shy man with a beard, whom the narrator didn’t know). Who are these men?

      Samuel Wilberforce.jpg
      Bishop Samuel Wilberforce

      Filby, an argumentative person with red hair who is frequently disagreeing with the Time Traveler: Filby is obviously Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford and Winchester, the most famous opponent of Huxley. It was at the British Association for the Advancement of Science on June 30, 1860 that they had their famous clash of words. Wilberforce asked whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that Huxley was descended from apes. Huxley responded that he would rather have an ape for an ancestor than a bishop who distorted the truth. A painting by George Richmond in 1868 shows Wilberforce with reddish brown hair.

      William Ewart Gladstone.jpg
      Prime Minister William Ebert Gladstone

      Provincial Mayor: There is no such thing. But England had several Prime Ministers. One in particular, was William Ewart Gladstone, who first became prime minister in 1868 and held the office on four separate occasions, the GOM (Grand Old Man), as Huxley called him, Huxley’s “favorite enemy”.30 They had several debates over evolution, creation and other topics of the Bible between November 1885 and April 1891.

      Alfred Russel Wallace.jpg
      Alfred William Wallace

      It was the Psychologist who actually pushed the lever to pushed the lever that sent forth the prototype time machine on its voyage. He not only accepted and supported the Time Traveler’s explanation, but also offered his own explanation as to why the miniature was no longer visible. Alfred Russel Wallace was not a psychologist, but his differences with Darwin over natural selection dealt with human behavior. Both had developed the theory of evolution and natural selection together, and had shared their theories with one another. It was Darwin who was first to publish his Origin of Species in 1859. In 1871, Darwin later published his second major work, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. He argued three mechanisms that produced advanced species despite the randomness of mutation: One was that changes in environment may cause a mutated species to become more adaptable that its parent species, until the parent species eventually died out. The other two mechanisms dealt with sexual behavior. One was that a superior male would be more successful in competing with a weaker male in mating. Then there was the choice of the female in selecting her ideal mate. But Wallace opposed Darwin’s theory that human as well as animal sexual behavior was a factor in the development of species.

      Sir Richard Owen.jpg
      Sir Richard Owen

      The Medical Man: Possibly Sir Richard Owen, who was present at that confrontation between Huxley and Wilberforce. Although he accepted some form of evolution, yet he was a critic of Darwin’s theory and dismissed the idea that humans were descendants of apes. In a March 1858 lecture at the Royal Institution, Huxley attacked Owen’s views that humans were unique. In the April 1860 Edinburgh Review Owen verbally attacked Huxley.

      Blank, The Editor of a well-known daily newspaper: Who this is, if anybody, is not clear. When he visited the United States in 1876, Huxley had his supporters among American newspapers such as the New York Herald.

      John Morley.jpg
      John Morley

      The Journalist: On November 8, 1868, Huxley presented a lecture in Edinburgh, entitled “On the Physical Basis of Life”, advocating that protoplasm, rather than the cell, was the unitary substance of all life. Shortly afterwards, his lecture was published by John Morley, editor of The Fortnightly Review.31 This brought about a barrage of criticism from vitalists, who held that life itself was an imponderable force that operated through the biological system from without, not from within.

      The Very Young Man (who smoked a cigar): He was the only one of the group to appear excited with the idea of a time machine. We could argue that this was Wells himself, who was much younger than the others. But was Wells a cigar smoker? And if we identify this Very Young Man as Wells, then who was the narrator of the story?

      Charles Darwin.jpg
      Charles Darwin

      The Silent Man with a beard, whom the narrator did not know, and who never opened his mouth all evening: Definitely Charles Darwin. He suffered an undiagnosed illness during much of his adult life. Although he completed On the Origin of Species only seven months before the famous Wilberforce-Huxley debate of 1960, his health had become worse, and stomach problems forced him to seek treatment at Dr. Edward Wickstead Lane’s hydropathic clinic two days before the debate. Confrontations and arguments made his stomach condition worse, forcing him to live a passive life, avoiding debate. Thomas Huxley took upon himself the role of “Darwin’s Bulldog,” passionately supporting Darwin’s theory as Darwin withdrew from public in the later years of his life.


      Then there is the reference to the garden that the Time Traveller noticed when he arrive at the time of the Eloi.32 When Huxley’s lecture, “Evolution and Ethics,” was published in 1894, it included a prolegomena about the garden. The gardener, by fertilizing and watering the plants and removing the weeds, creates an artificial environment. With the natural environment destroyed there is no longer the need for the plant to struggle for survival. All its needs are met by the gardener. Likewise, man’s struggle to survive in the natural environment produced in him the ability to control his environment, and that ability in turn eliminates any further need to adapt.33 It is this future garden that Huxley/time Traveller sees through his Darwinian time machine.

      The narrator, who believes in the time Traveller, is Wells himself. The narrator sets aside an important meeting in order to follow after the time Traveller, just as Wells set aside his goals as a scientist to pursue his socialist obligations, which he claims to have developed as a result of Huxley’s instruction. The others will continue to mock this “Eminent Scientist”. They won’t believe his picture of mankind’s fate. They will go on their own ways. This is Wells’ third area of pessimism.

      The narrator arrives just in time to see the time Traveller disappear. He waits and waits, but the time Traveller will never return.

      Huxley died on Jun 29, 1895, less than two months before Wells added the conclusion to his story.

      Wells continued with his pessimism throughout his life. Even after he had finished his Utopian books and novels, his pessimism is still there. He lived on to see two World Wars, and it was under the shadow of Hiroshima’s spreading nuclear cloud that he wrote his last work, Mind at the End of Its Tether:

      The writer sees the world as a jaded world devoid of recuperative power. In the past he has liked to think that Man could pull out of his entanglements and start a new creative phase of human living. In the face of our universal inadequacy, that optimism has given place to a stoical cynicism.... Ordinary man is at the end of his tether.34
      Wells spent his last days in full agreement with the total Cosmic Pessimism that Huxley proclaimed to the students of Oxford University more than half a century earlier.

      So are the paths of all that forget God; and the hypocrite's hope shall perish: Whose hope shall be cut off, and whose trust shall be a spider's web. He shall lean upon his house, but it shall not stand: he shall hold it fast, but it shall not endure. (Job 8:13-15, KJV)


      30. Cyril Bibby, T.H. Huxley, Scientist, Humanist and Educator. (New York: Horizon Press, 1960.) 28.
      31. Huxley, “On the Physical Basis of Life”. The Fortnightly Review; 5 (London; Chapman and Hall; February 1, 1869.) 129-145.
      32. Wells, TTM iii.
      33. Williamson, 75.
      34. Wells, Mind at the End of Its Tether. (London: William Heinemann Ltd., Jan. 1945.) 30.
      Last edited by Faber; 10-26-2020, 08:53 PM.


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