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The modern world has few true mysteries, among them the fate of the Roanoke colonists and the crew of the Mary Celeste but do such happenings have a place in futuristic settings?

In settings with locally instantaneous communication and ubiquitous forensics using techniques we'd recognise but with equipment of far greater sensitivity is there any room left for not being able to explain odd happenings?

I'd like to have a setting which is technologically advanced where the "every day life" can be explained to a degree that almost makes life boring but in which a few paradoxical situations still have the scientists throw up their hands in puzzled disbelief once in a while. How can this be achieved without creating a visible paradox that is damaging to suspension of disbelief?

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    This seems like more of a worldbuilding question than a writing question. – user16226 Jul 23 '18 at 12:23
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    @MarkBaker Maybe but I can see the POB and "Story-based" VTCs piling up pretty quick, maybe it's just a poor fit in general. – Ash Jul 23 '18 at 12:36
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    Not sure I understand the issue. Don't many sci fi high-tech settings involve odd events that defy even futuristic technology? In Solaris, for instance, there is a living ocean whose mechanism and purpose nobody understands. In 2001: A Space Odyssey there is the monolith. The children's destination in Childhood's End. The Shrike in Hyperion. I would say that this stuff is pretty common in sci fi, no? – Misha R Jul 23 '18 at 22:55
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    "The modern world has few true mysteries..." Funny joke. – jpmc26 Jul 23 '18 at 23:07
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    @Ash Space Opera is part of the science fiction category, and the difference has more to do with the setting and drama than with the amount of fantasy (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_opera). Either way, considering that the wiki on space opera lists Asimov's Foundation series as an example, I think we can agree that we aren't necessarily talking about Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy. Are you looking to write a fully scientifically accurate science novel that takes place in the future where nearly everything was discovered? That's a heck of a project. – Misha R Jul 24 '18 at 11:35

14 Answers 14

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A little before Einstein's time, people were saying there's no sense in going into physics, since almost all the questions have already been answered, we understand everything that can be understood, there's only one or two unanswered issues, and those are going to be solved soon. Then came Einstein and his Relativity Theory, and we discovered there's a lot we don't yet know.

You want a mystery, there's no reason why you shouldn't have it. All the technology and knowledge that shows how we shouldn't have been able to understand what's going on, the chemicals shouldn't be reacting like that, etc. - they only serve to increase the mystery.

Also, remember sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic (A.C Clarke), and conversely sufficiently explained magic is indistinguishable from science. You need something impossible to happen? Make it happen. Then instead of saying "by magic" say "by science we do not yet fully understand". Think how many times Star Trek, for example, encountered a mystery (spaceship-swallowing giant amoeba, groundhog-day inducing "phenomenon", etc.), called it "science", and explained it with lots of technobabble.

End of the day, There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. You can make up anything to mystify the scientist of your story.

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    If you're writing science fiction, however, it's critical that at least the author have a coherent system for how all of this is working. – chrylis -on strike- Jul 24 '18 at 7:57
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is there any room left for not being able to explain odd happenings?

Yes, the flip side of high tech detection is high tech concealment.

Criminals can know all the tricks used for detection, and have their own high tech to conceal what they've done, or mislead the high tech equipment, or fake the high tech evidence. Or use exactly the same high tech as the detectives to make sure they leave nothing behind.

For example, long ago, I worked a gig in bank financial security. (I was a high tech consultant). Remember when credit cards introduced holograms on cards as a way to prove they were authentic? That was done in response to organized crime simply manufacturing valid credit cards, instead of stealing them. They had the machines, plastic, etc to just create a forgery of your card, and buy some stuff with it that they then sold on the black market, like cigarettes or jewelery. They got the names and numbers from waiters and store clerks; remember those carbon impression receipts they used to keep? They just paid some shady servants for copies of those. (In modern times, an iPhone could snap a photo of the front and back of your card). The holograms couldn't be easily faked!

But about a year after the introduction of holograms; some criminals hijacked and stole an 18-wheeler carrying a credit card printing machine for these hologram cards, along with raw materials to print tens of thousands of them.

You don't have to duplicate the holograms, you can just steal them. They never got caught, and presumably the rest of the operation continued as before (and may still continue).

Technological detection and concealment are in an arms race, every advance in one prompts an advance in the other. Exploit that and you can create mysteries and events nobody can explain.

Of course your other means of accomplishing this are magic, aliens, time travelers and antiquity. DNA and other biological evidence can degrade very quickly; especially trace evidence if somebody was aiming to be careful. And concealment 101 still works, satellites don't see through stone or steel barriers, and people (esp criminals) can communicate in codes that only they know.

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    Not quite the "frame" I was thinking in but certainly helpful food for thought, thanks for that. – Ash Jul 23 '18 at 13:02
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The disappearances you gave as examples where very likely not unexplainable from the perspective of the disappeared people. They just seem inexplicable a few hundred years after the fact.

Similarly "unexplainable" things happen today all the time. Think of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It is highly likely that the airplane wasn't taken up by an alien spacecraft or lost in the Bermuda triangle, but simply lost its way due to some technical malfunction of human error and now lies somewhere in the ocean where the searchers just haven't yet looked. Or all the people who turn up at police stations without identity, and no one knows who they are and where they came from. No, they aren't mermaids or returned from alien abductions, they just suffer from memory loss, psychosis, or outright lie.

So if something happens and someone cannot explain how it could have happend, there is always someone who knows how it happened who doesn't tell – either because he doesn't want to or because he can't (or because no one thinks to ask him or because they don't believe what he says).

It's like this: If you come home one day and find your window broken and a baseball lying on your living room floor, and the kids outside say that they don't know how it happened and they haven't seen anything, then you have an unexplained event.

So if you want a colony to disappear from a planet, simply have them disappear. It's perfectly fine if your narrator doesn't know the truth and believes the legends.


Re: your comment

It seems to me that you have plotted yourself into a corner.

You want a world that is so advanced that all facts are known. That makes any mystery impossible – unless you want to introduce the supernatural.

If you want non-supernatural unresolved mysteries, then you'll have to introduce imperfection. Either your technology is not ubiquitous or it fails or people intentionally subvert it.

  • They're both mysteries that have always been mysteries to everyone standing outside looking in not just long after the fact. We know, roughly, what happened to Flight MH370 and where it is. It's not a pretty story (it appears that the pilot deliberately did them in) but it's one we learned within a couple of years because of our modern capabilities which is what I'm asking, where, if at all, is there room left for mysteries in futuristic settings. It's not about having people disappear it's about having them stay disappeared – Ash Jul 23 '18 at 16:59
  • @Ash But they're only mysteries because of when they happened. There was no way to do forensic analysis on the scene, or anything like that. More prosaicly, hundreds of children a day go missing around the world. Most are recovered; some turn up later after running away from an abusive home; but some never turn up and are presumed murdered. We see these as unsolved crimes, not "mysteries". – Graham Jul 23 '18 at 17:06
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    @Ash See my edit. If your surveillance technology is perfect, there cannot be mystery. If there is mystery, then your surveillance must have "gaps". Plain and simple. The solution to your problem is that you must stop thinking of future technology as infallible. First, because that is unrealistic. Modern technology fails more easily and more often than a stone handax. Future techology will be even more vulnerable. Second, because otherwise your story idea won't work. – user32282 Jul 23 '18 at 17:06
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    @Ash To add to Fred Bob's final paragraph though, read the original novella of "Minority Report" by Philip K Dick, or watch the excellent film which barely uses the original plot but does more interesting things with the concept. Both cover ubiquitous technology which can be subverted. – Graham Jul 23 '18 at 17:08
  • @Ash Just today the official report on Flight MH370 was published. The authorities stated that they do not know why the airplane got lost. So if you know that the pilot "did them in", you know more than those investigating the flight. For all others, the mystery remains. – user32282 Jul 30 '18 at 17:29
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Arthur C. Clarke wrote:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So yes, no matter how advanced your civilization, you can still get a bit further and introduce something which isn't explainable for them and seems like magic.

The audience of a work labeled as science fiction will usually assume that there is a scientific explanation for whatever is happening, but that the explanation is too advanced for the characters in the work to grasp.

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The great thing about writing science-fiction is that we don't have to focus on the mundane 99.9% of universes where the unexplainable event didn't happen because of the vanishingly low probability. Instead, we can explore the one unique, improbable universe where it did happen, and then work from there. No matter how unlikely, there is always a possibility that something can happen that known science cannot explain sufficiently (yet).

As a scientific-minded reader, I can (subjectively) say that you can go ahead with an unlikely phenomenon if:

  • it serves your plot
  • doesn't hinge on suspension of disbelief too heavily
  • you are not writing a diamond-hard sci-fi universe

Please also note that even sci-fi universes towards the very hard end of the scale generally allow themselves one or two "physics-violating" technologies, which most readers are willing to forgive if the writing is really good.

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    Actually, diamond is hard but brittle. (Try plugging something like "diamond brittle" into your favorite search engine.) So a diamond-sci-fi might be rather hard, but it's also prone to breaking (i.e., it is brittle). Sounds like a more apt analogy than perhaps you intended. :-) – a CVn Jul 23 '18 at 17:31
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    This answer if fun, it's no help to me but it is fun. – Ash Jul 23 '18 at 18:00
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    Science fiction readers routinely accept faster than light travel, even though all the actual evidence is that this is impossible. Heck, readers of Perry Mason stories accept that Perry Mason only gets big murder cases with innocent clients. CSI viewers routinely accept that the detective can look at 4 pixels in the corner of a security video and say, "enlarge" and "clarify" and suddenly data materializes out of nowhere to make a recognizable image. – Jay Jul 23 '18 at 19:57
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    @JörgWMittag The "magic radiation shielding" is nowhere near as implausible as the event that kicked off the plot; there simply isn't enough atmosphere on Mars to come up with a proper windstorm. – Mason Wheeler Jul 23 '18 at 20:15
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    @Jay I actually take issue with CSI. Their version of both technology and science borders on magitek. I do IT for a living, so I can authoritatively say that they usually have no idea what they are doing at least with regards to tech. There may exist a universe where technology and science functions as depicted on that show, but it's definitely not ours. Now, if they explicitly based their show in a magitek-capable universe (a la Dresden files)... that would be something I wouldn't mind watching :) – BrP Jul 24 '18 at 10:39
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Technology today is obviously far more advanced than the technology of 500 years ago. And yet there are still plenty of mysteries today.

We still have plenty of mysteries about individual people and events, like "what happened to Jimmy Hoffa?", or all the thousands of unsolved crimes. Indeed, just recently I read an article that said, I forget the percentages and it's not important enough to look up, but they said that the percentage of murders in New York City that are solved and the culprit convicted today is LESS than it was 50 years ago. The writer went on to speculate that this is because detectives today have gotten lazy and rely on advanced forensic technology, DNA and so on, rather than doing the leg-work. Whether that's the reason or not, apparently the advanced technology has not eliminated all mysteries at all.

Similarly, there are still plenty of higher-level mysteries. Is there such a creature as bigfoot? Is there life on other planets? Is cold fusion possible? Etc.

Sure, advancing science answers some of the old questions. But it often brings up new questions. Like, before 1492 no one in Europe knew what lay 1000 miles to the west. Now we know. 75 years ago no one knew what the far side of the Moon looked like. Now we know. But we still don't know know what planets beyond our own solar system look like.

I don't think any serious scientist today would say, "We know just about everything there is to know about the universe." I doubt we'll reach such a point in a million years.

Every technology has its limitations and flaws and vulnerabilities. Indeed advanced technology creates vulnerabilities that more primitive people might not even notice. If someone set off a high-power electromagnetic pulse over a major city today, it would cause massive damage and bring the city to a halt. If someone had set off a high-power electromagnetic pulse over a major city 200 years ago, would anyone have even noticed?

  • Rightly or wrongly to me individuals don't a mystery make, mysteries require that something inexplicable happen to enough people at the same time that simple explanations fail. – Ash Jul 24 '18 at 12:50
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    Depends what kind of "mystery" you're talking about. "Who murdered Mr Jones?" is the classic question of many mystery stories. But if you – Jay Jul 24 '18 at 17:49
  • Yeah I see what you mean, I'm think big and historic not immediate and personal, that's not necessarily useful although it fits the particular scenario I keep thinking of it doesn't meet most definitions of what I'm asking about. – Ash Jul 24 '18 at 17:52
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    Depends what kind of "mystery" you're talking about. "What happened to the Mary Celeste?" is an "individual mystery" in the sense I meant. The solution might be something amazing and exotic that challenges everything we thought we knew about physics. But more likely it's something like "they were kidnapped by pirates" or "they thought the boat was going to sink and fled in the lifeboat, only to perish at sea". – Jay Jul 24 '18 at 18:00
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First off, may I suggest a post I did many years ago on WorldBuilding: What's the smallest change to physics required to allow magic?. I think the first step to answering your question is to unseat the assumption that things could ever be boring.

The next thing that I'd recommend would be looking at the Self. Science and technology cannot completely define the Self, because the preferred languages for scientific or mathematical descriptions break down when dealing with many of the attributes we associate with the Self. You'd have to pioneer new languages to describe things before the Self ever got boring.

Chaos is another interesting topic. Chaos and other "topologically mixing" phenomena. They make it very difficult to figure out what happened after the fact. You pretty much have to observe it as it is happening. If I gave you all the weather information you could process starting January 1, 2000 and ending December 31, 2000, you still could not do a good job of predicting whether it had been raining or shining Dec 1, 1999.

Also, there are limits to processing and storage. Consider that the internet currently stores around 1200 petabytes. That's basically all the harddrives hooked up to the internet. Many internet backbones are now 100G lines, meaning they transmit 100 Gigabits per second. If you run the numbers, any one of those backbones could "fill" our entire storage capacity in 3 years. And there are a lot of backbones. Most of that data has to simply... vanish. We lose it. It's gone forever. It's job is done.

All you need is for some of those lost bits to acquire newfound importance, and you have a mystery already.

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Lots if things used to be "inexplicable". Then, science advances and eventually finds an explanation - think of Louis Pasteur discovering the causes of diseases and their spread.

So, you can have an event or effect for which the cause is unknown - so long as the results from the effect follow "hard science". For example, a large mysterious portal is formed between Nuuk, Greenland and Cape Town, South Africa. What will this do to the weather? Immigration? Animal Migration?

So long as you keep the "inexplicable events" both internally consistent and not too outlandish or widespread (i.e. despite only having 1 inexplicable event, "Groundhog Day" is hardly "Hard Science"), there is no reason why they cannot fit within a "Hard Science" universe.

(Taking "Star Wars" as an example: Hyperspace, Blasters, Lightsabers? "Hard Science Fiction". Precognition, Prophecy, The Force? "Soft Fantasy Fiction")

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Inexplicable and unresolved events can be greatly used in hard science fiction in order to show the approaches how people attempt to study them.

A truly hard sci-fi might not even provide the solution of this inexplicable event as the resolution of the story: the mystery might still remain a mystery, because that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was to analyze the approaches the researchers made and highlight their flaws.

Stanisław Lem was a master of this approach. Many of his hardest sci-fi novels have an inexplicable mystery which stays completely unresolved even when the story is finished.

  • His Master's Voice: SETI records a signal from space which looks like a massage sent by extraterrestrials.

By the time the project is ended, they are no more sure than they were in the beginning about whether the signal was a message from intelligent beings that humanity failed to decipher, or a poorly understood natural phenomenon.

  • Fiasko: Signs of possible extraterrestrial intelligence are found on an exoplanet, and an expedition is sent to make contact with them.

As the title suggests, they fail. They arrive to the planet, and it is indeed inhabited by intelligent life, but they are so different from us, that every attempt at communication fails. Due to one of the explorers botching up, we don't even get to know how they look like and what they really are.

  • Katar: In a holiday resort, a series of mysterious deaths occur, with very strong correlations between the profiles of the victims, hinting towards a serial killer.

At the end it seems highly likely that it was just a coincidence, and the deaths happened purely by chance.

  • Solaris: One of the most famous novels of the author involves the study of a planet which is covered by a seemingly intelligent ooze.

The researchers painstakingly catalogue all the phenomena they can observe, but they find no conclusions and no information about what they are, what they mean, and they fail at every attempt to communicate with it.

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The latest I've read about Flight MH370 is that the pilot committed suicide via mass murder. He flew out of range of most radars to hide his tracks.

Sci-Fi would be similar. Even if you use Star Trek as a base, they still had subspace communications arrays to enable close to instant communication. You had to be in range of one in order to send a message.

The same thing in a realistic sci-fi world. There are limits to science and sensors and anything that happens outside of those limits can remain a mystery.

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Even in a world where, in theory, everything can be known, measured and recorded, there are still plenty of gaps in knowledge. This has very little to do with the actual tech and much more to do with the resources available. Even in an extremely advanced society, certain resources are still limited. The most important of these for generating mystery are time, people and ownership.

Time is probably the easiest. It's mostly related to more personal mysteries rather than (for example) a suddenly missing skyscraper but even there it applies. You could certainly have the tech to solve a missing person or someone's stolen datacore. However, that takes time. A lot of time, usually to the point where it's infeasible to cover 100% of all bases.
You might imagine that total surveillance would help you catch every criminal all the time. In the best case scenario, you might have indestructible small drones, one for each person, that follows them 100% of the time. Congrats, you now have 12 billion (give or take) hours of footage to sift through every hour. Good luck finding the one minute of footage that shows you what happened. Data transfer speeds might make this even more of an issue and form a compelling reason for an investigator to hoof it to different datacenters and have some drama on the way to the mystery.
Even DNA tests, if they were 100% foolproof, take time to complete. Sifting through the rubble remaining when a building vanished takes time. Traveling halfway across the globe to talk to a potential witness who got on the first suborbital takes time. And if the mystery is urgent, there's your drama.

The second is people. Your tech might be able to 100% scan and map out the physical world but people lie. And ferreting out those lies is a compelling source of drama on its own. But that's not all people do. People are envious, greedy and self-centered. Just because you think you have the best tech on the block doesn't mean a different corporation or research entity hasn't developed something better and kept it to themselves. And why wouldn't they keep it to themselves? Hell, this doesn't even have to be tech. It could be someone lying about where they were the night before (at the club, cheating on their wife/husband/robot), someone inventing an elaborate cover story to avoid culpability or so they don't have to face facts (9/11 conspiracy theories come to mind) or any number of reasons.
Third is ownership. Every technological development is impossible, right until someone cracks it and then it's only impossible for those who don't have access to it. As a good example, consider the invention of radar in WWII. The nazis had no idea why the Brits were so good at fighting them at night and the British intelligence service got remarkably creative with inventing reasons as to why their pilots could figure out where enemy bombers were in the pitch dark. Information and technological asymmetry is a great source of drama.

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In settings with locally instantaneous communication and ubiquitous forensics using techniques we'd recognise but with equipment of far greater sensitivity is there any room left for not being able to explain odd happenings?

What you are describing is commonplace in modern SciFi. Recently (starting in the 90's / 00's?), nano-technology and the like has been pretty standard fare. Minds are "uploaded", people augmented, all-knowing A.I.'s fly around, etc.. Almost every book still contains a healthy amount of mystery.

The good thing about the universe is that it is not only big, but also deep. Especially if you thankfully limit your technology level to what we'd recognize - which means it's not much, really - we still will not be able to read the intention in a human's brain (at least not without them noticing). There still can be human-centered plots galore, involving mad or bad people (e.g., Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon series).

There still can be random events. Quantum theory tells us that no matter what, it will never be possible to predict or measure everything.

Beyond that, you can achieve anything with aliens and/or advanced physics. Don't only think in terms of little green men from Mars - look at books like Dan Simmon's Hyperion, or Peter Hammilton's Reality Dysfunction or Void series. They have all-powerful technology, but there's always something to be found at the edge.

A good contender to restore some mystery is any kind of conflict/war - where each party employs technology to lessen the "all-knowingness" of the enemy.

Finally, while we may be technologically advanced enough, any individual human might still have a closer field of view, if you wish. Only because we know how to know everything does still not mean that everybody individually knows everything. You can have your technology live more in the background of your story - grab any bored teenager who seems to know everything, and let them discover something new...

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Another tack you could try is that in the story, the viewpoint characters do not observe the supernatural phenomena, but instead receive reports of the same.

Then, when they (or other characters) go to investigate, they are able neither to confirm nor disprove the report; the best they can do in any case is to go to the places where these events took place and look at the physical traces of the event, but see no repetition of them. The reported witnesses, of course, cannot be located.

You can either resolve the mystery definitively--in hard SF this means proving not only that the event has a natural explanation, but also that this is the correct explanation in a non-dogmatic way--or you can leave the reader hanging to some degree.

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'Yesterday' we found an exoplanet that ... should not exist. It is a large gas giant and its star is a small red dwarf. Scientists had enough trouble already explain star system orbits, and now they have a case that troubles them even further. This gas giant should not rotate around the star - it should simply go away. But it does, so the present perception of how all (masses gravitational forces etc) work out become ... a mystery. At least more unknown than what it was. And all this with one visual observation at some routine observation program, i guess.

No matter the tech level of your world, there still be inexplicable events and unanswered questions. The real question is how this affects your story. What you need them for? Are there the root for a large scale disaster? Or perhaps an exploration or rescue mission? A chance for your protagonist and her story to join a chain of events? At all cases the mystery itself is composed by the elements your story indicates, excuse the mystery to be a inexplicable events at an X tech level is the easy part.

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