I want Pandora’s Potential to provoke consideration (and hopefully discussion) of some moral issues, which I believe require contemporary resolution. If the book takes off, I’d like to produce a workbook for individuals and more particularly groups (especially of men), to discuss topics such as: virtual morality and ‘does it matter what you think, as long as you don’t do it’.
I started writing this novel in September 2003 but the vagaries of life meant it wasn’t until late 2014 that I finally finished it. However, the delay in publishing Pandora’s Potential, may well have been fortuitous and the timing of publication opportune. The last ten years has seen an unprecedented, quantum leap in online gaming, and virtual reality is a well-populated, very public domain. This may mean that it is not too far beyond belief to imagine that a technique or a software program could be developed, which could create other worlds, it was possible to visit.
It concerns me greatly though, that too many of today’s youngsters are spending more of their own time in virtuality, than they do in reality. At the time of writing, I am doing some work in a small school for children with autistic spectrum needs, supporting teachers. Some of the children and young people there, are playing Minecraft and sometimes other far from appropriate games, into the early hours of the morning, with parents unaware that their children are ‘not in their bedrooms’. Instead they are wandering through sinister landscapes, where they roam heedless of the need for either a moral compass to find their way around or ethical armour to protect them, as they take on mythical monsters or deal with situations, which have the potential to transmute formative morality.
From the start, virtual morality is a challenge for Idris, the main character in Pandora’s Potential. Initially, he sees ‘What will IT be? (the software program he is given), as just offering a very vivid, realistic immersive experience, much like any other computer game on the market. He certainly doesn’t appreciate that he actually enters ‘other worlds’. As such, he deals with moral issues on the basis that it’s all in his imagination and therefore he can ‘do’ whatever he feels like doing. It’s all just in his mind and doesn’t affect (or harm) anyone else.
The consequence of this is that he goes with the flow of his carnal desires and indulges himself, whenever he is sexually aroused, without allowing his moral restraints to moderate his behaviour, as they would do in real life. Gradually, he comes to realise, that for him, his own ethical values hold true in all situations, real or imagined.
I agonised long on whether to include in the book the sub-theme of sexual abuse, particularly that by an older woman on a young boy. Sadly, a further timely though unintended factor, around publication, is that paedophilia has been very much in the news over the last few years and there is far greater awareness of how widespread it has been, for at least the last four decades.
Whilst female abuse of young males may not be as prevalent as abuse by males, it is nevertheless of concern. There are a number reasons why it is not so readily seen as harmful, especially by men and further reasons why it may be difficult for male survivors to talk about the abuse they have suffered, but I feel it appropriate to draw specific attention to this and to encourage more deliberation on and discussion about, sexual abuse in general.
There is a danger that when paedophilia is mentioned in the media (or indeed in conversation) because (understandably) they are repulsed by the topic, people are inclined to switch off and insufficient consideration is given to the issues involved. It also means that individuals and society are less able to effectively ameliorate the damage caused by the abuse or aid its prevention.
The interface between virtuality and sexual deviance is one which I believe requires us, as individuals and communities, to consider carefully. Are we, by default, exposing children, young people and even vulnerable adults to moral danger, by failing to think through ethical issues, provide guidelines, or appropriately limit access. The boundaries which a caring society sets, must leave room for individuals of any age to explore within and to push against. Each of us has the right to decide for ourselves our ethical standards. Equally though, haven’t we a responsibility to protect those whose capacity to decide for themselves is at a formative stage or intellectually limited, by ensuring they can cope with the settings, real or virtual, they find themselves in.
It has always concerned me that children (and indeed young people) are given experiences before they are old enough to really appreciate them. The upshot of this is, when they reach an appropriate age for optimum enjoyment of that experience, their response is: “we did that in nursery” — and they don’t think it’s worth trying again. When the ‘experience’ is in essence sexual or violent, then the search for greater ‘enjoyment’ can easily stray into the deviant. Is this a very real danger for many youngsters and don’t we owe to them, to ensure that we take the same sort of ‘health and safety care’ of their virtual environments, as we do of their physical adventure playgrounds.
I have used the setting of my own childhood as the scene for that of Idris. The reasons are twofold. Firstly, it is easier for me to draw on my own experience. Secondly (and perhaps more importantly), it allows me to ‘live’ a rerun of my own childhood, changing factors which allow me to imagine how differently my life may have turned out.
I believe I am not alone in fantasying in this way. That said, I am grateful for the life I have enjoyed and whilst I regret the hurt that some of my decisions and actions have caused to others, I acknowledge that adversity has often been ‘an angel in disguise’. In short, I have no regrets, or complaints as to how my life turned out and I know I owe as much to sorrow as I do to joy, as much to the bad experiences as to the good.
Peter J Farley
Monday 28th July 2003
Indeed, thought Idris, the Bard was right – all the world’s a stage and all men and women merely players. He was sitting in shorts and T-shirt, outside the Pandora Inn at Restronguet, enjoying the impromptu sketches being put on in this particular open-air theatre of life. The Pandora was a long-time favourite of his: a thatched pub, parts of which dated back to the 13th century. He had deliberately chosen a table so that he could look out at the backdrop of craft of various sizes, which were gently rocking on the water.
This could be the setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he mused. Were those around him, simply like that troupe of players, who found themselves in a wood —where fairies reigned and magic was ubiquitous? There was certainly a magical feel to the scene, as the late evening sun seemed to set the hills opposite ablaze. Was the magic strong enough though, to dispel the gloom that had dogged the start of his day? Perhaps those weren’t midges but minuscule piskies, dancing in the sunlight above the picnic tables.
Yes, he thought — the sky is full of piskies, flitting enchantingly over the unwitting actors, as he watched the cameos being played out around him. The stage was a pontoon, which floated (firmly tethered), in this inlet of the Fal estuary. He could imagine it was only the huge ship’s anchor, which was well-and-truly embedded into the quay, which prevented this rustic reality floating off into the Faerie.
Whilst a pint of lager washed down the last of a nostalgic pasty, he was back to considering how he could find more purpose and excitement in life, an incentive to overcome the inertia which had dominated the early part of his day. His ambivalence concerned him. One moment he could be enthused and focused on his latest project, the next preoccupied in mournful introspection. When the occasion such as a public relations event, demanded it, he knew he came over as confident — the complete extrovert. Conversely, in social settings, after a while he would often withdraw - becoming introverted.
Strangely, he found the initial contact with people easy and he readily invited people into his comfort zone. It was only later, when small talk appeared to be the order of the day, he found the going heavy. It was as though in some areas of life he knew his role, whilst in others he was unrehearsed or hadn’t learned his lines. It seemed, however, others were unaware of the inner struggle he fought to try and come to terms with the contrasting aspects of his nature. Could it be they had learned to conceal the reality that they too wrestled with the same internal dichotomy?
Shaded from the last shafts of sunlight by the higher ground behind him, which led down to the side of the creek, he felt more relaxed — enjoying the residual warmth of what had been an extremely hot July day. Almost in holiday mood, he was able at last to consider how dismally his day had dawned. It had been one of those mornings when, seemingly for no apparent reason, he’d woken up feeling blue.
Certainly he hadn't exactly been depressed but by the time he had surfaced from sleep he was already wondering whether it was worth the effort of getting out of bed. There was no denying it; he had definitely been feeling ‘down in the dumps’. He had lain there for some considerable time, thinking about his life. Some might consider he had everything he needed but, in terms of emotionally meaningful relationships, he felt impoverished. For him, there was sufficient truth in this feeling for a bout of the blues to develop. Perhaps too, it was simply the excesses of the night before, which had pushed him into alcohol-induced melancholy.
The truth was, there had been no compelling reason for him to get up. He was his own boss, a millionaire ¬¬¬¬– indeed multi-millionaire, whose fortune had been made through property development, company acquisition and shrewd stock market trading. He had carefully chosen his key personnel and knew he could safely leave them to manage Seer Holdings in his absence. He reckoned too, they had also grown accustomed to his ever-increasing, indulgent absences of late.
There was something about this particular morning though. It was true that just over a month earlier it had been his fifty-first birthday. It was also true that it was eight o'clock on a Monday morning. It was untrue however, that these two facts were sufficient of themselves, to explain how he had felt. Essentially, he'd realised he was bored — having exhausted all the challenges he could conceive. Whether that was the cause or not, the emotional tone of the day seemed set. When he was able at last to counter the inertia that had kept him pinned to the bed he decided he needed to get away from London for a while. So it was that his mood had driven him down to Cornwall.
He turned his attention back to the amateur dramatics of the various groups of the pub’s customers. He found himself imagining what their worlds were like, how they coped with the mundane. He saw a couple in their early sixties, sitting engrossed in a crossword. Something about this shared effort suggested that their relationship had been forged by tackling adversity together and by refusing to allow the enigmas of life to divert or thwart them. He sensed too, this had given their relationship a depth of intimacy he had never really experienced. He saw them as a couple who were always looking for a fresh challenge, determined not to roll over before the time they chose, if at all.
Another couple, in their early twenties, sat with their drinks, earnestly engaged in conversation with a child of about two. The child was seated between them, in one of those all-terrain pushchairs. Idris could picture them striding across Bodmin Moor, with the child very much part of the expedition. There, he thought, was a child who was learning the richness of relationships and family life, gaining an experience of the world around him, from a place of security and acceptance. This contrasted so vividly with his own childhood.
Thankfully, a little further away, sat a couple with two sons. The boys were at the opposite ends of puberty. Clearly their boisterous, almost loutish, behaviour was embarrassing their mother. The father, in his late thirties, occasionally made the most inappropriate and clearly ineffective threats. These served to indicate that he had no real relationship with, or understanding of, his offspring. Instead, it appeared he was more attached to his pint than his family. Certainly this was the impression Idris formed, from the expression of domestic disinterest on the man’s face, suggesting familial failure.
Here at least, was someone to whom Idris could relate – if somewhat uncomfortably. He became conscious of his own tendency to seek the undemanding company of the inanimate, so avoiding the complications of having to hold a conversation. He had, he realised, allowed himself to become something of a recluse. This rendered him more likely to succumb to the sort of mood that had dominated his day. Uncomfortably, he recalled something he had read in a novel a few days ago, where the author commented that his introspective anti-hero appeared to spend more time living in his own head, rather than socialising. Today, that seemed to highlight even more vividly, where his life was heading.
What was it the quote from As You Like It: ‘All the world’s went on to say – something about a man in his time playing many parts? Maybe that accounted for the contradictions he saw in his own life. Which persona was the real Idris Rees? Was there ever a time when a person stops performing and was truly themselves? Maybe they were just like actors in a Summer Rep company, each playing several characters in the same play.
Dampening the tip of a finger with a quick lick, Idris picked up some pasty crumbs, savouring the pungency. “Some things are too good to waste and you need to lick the plate clean," said a voice, with a distinct Welsh accent. Idris looked up to see a man, some ten or more years his senior, with an almost white goatee beard, smiling genially. The brightness of the light behind him seemed to give him an ephemeral aura. "May I join you?" he enquired.
There was something disarming about the man and Idris intuitively sensed he could put aside his normal reticence to refrain from familiarity. "Be my guest, though the company may not match the brightness of the evening," was Idris’s muttered response, indicating the seat opposite him at the table and the man sat down.
"No matter, the Welsh often appreciate melancholy in a way other tribes do not," said the stranger, unperturbed by the seeming sullenness he had encountered. "It may have been a Welshman, who suggested that: ‘Happiness can only be found in the profound acceptance of misery carried to ecstatic excess.’"
"He must have had some Celtic blood in him," conceded Idris, reluctantly. "It's the sort of comment only a Celt could come out with, in a moment of despair."
"True," said the man. "The name's Emrys by the way. Excuse my presumption for intruding but I've been watching you for a little while. I sensed you were feeling a tad despondent and might value an opportunity to peruse your options, so to speak — with the help of another."
"You're perceptions are uncannily accurate," said Idris, brightening up somewhat. "And yes, I would value such an opportunity. Where shall we start?"
“If I may, could I share something of my observations? You seem to me to be someone who is more intuitive than most, as I would claim for myself. Outwardly, you come over as a confident individual, someone who is comfortable with himself. Yet, I detect an air of uncertainty, which many might miss. This is an indication of how well you have learned to conceal it, though you strive not to be deceitful. Am I way off beam?”
“No, I concede it is true and, despite my natural reticence, you have me intrigued.”
“Will you indulge me then, if I explain where I’m coming from?”
“Of course, carry on.”
“I noticed you people-watching, as though you were an audience of one enjoying the crowd scenes, whilst you yourself were the main character in the performance. It was as though you were uncomfortable in that role.”
For a few moments, Idris studied his companion, whilst his natural curiosity rose to meet the challenge of this intrusive analysis. It was uncanny, the way in which this stranger had so accurately described how Idris had been viewing things. A gauntlet had been thrown down and, intellectually, he could not resist picking it up.
“For the time being, let’s accept this is the case. What else is your intuition telling you?”
“I have long been a student of human behaviour. To take the theatrical analogy a step further, what that study has shown me, is that most only know their role in part. It’s as though they understand the way they have to act but they don’t know why. They’ve read their part but have no idea of the plot, therefore they perform in a vacuum. Intuitively, you sense there’s more to life than just going through the motions but how few of your fellow players question things to this extent. The majority seem content to philosophically or spiritually piggy back on those they perceive to have the time, the intellect, the incentive or the interest, to think things through for themselves.”
“It would seem you have a notion, as to how this metaphysical impasse can be breached.”
"Actually, without seeming presumptuous," replied his companion, “I think I’ve found a way for those who wish it, to be able to rehearse different scenarios in private, with a view to honing their public performance. Let me explain, if I may. Strangely, for one my age, I am as they say, ‘into computers’. In fact I create computer software. I've recently created some software that allows others to get further into computers than perhaps they've been able to before. I assume you’re into computers, Idris?"
"Too true! Where I go, my laptop goes. Don't know where I'd be without it," he replied.
"Yes, again that’s what I surmised. But with respect, as yet you don't know just where you could be with it," said Emrys. "That's the way it is with my little masterpiece. If I were selling it, I’d guarantee it would enable you to experience things in a totally new way. There are dimensions to this program that you’ll find enthralling, totally absorbing. I’m certain, just by what I’ve observed of you, you’ll get infinite challenge and stimulation from using it." So saying, he took a CD-ROM case from the shoulder bag he'd laid on the table and handed it to Idris.
“Why would I accept something like this, from someone who is a comparative stranger? This could be anything and, naively, I could be opening up a can of worms. Added to which, I don’t fancy being done for possessing indecent images”
“I agree and I can fully understand your reticence but what purpose would there be in offering you something incriminating? Perhaps if you would indulge me further, things may become clearer. Fundamentally, I believe life should be lived to the full but, in my experience, very few maximise the potential to do so. If I am right, you are not content to just accept the status quo. You strike me as someone who is intellectually, emotionally and spiritually intrepid and who will relish the challenge this software offers.”
“Once again, let’s suppose this is the case, there is no guarantee I won’t be wasting my time.”
"If you have the time to test it out, I promise you won’t be disappointed. Give it a try. I think you'll be surprised at what you get into – and up to! You’ll need to use this too," he added. “It’s a specially adapted mouse, which is extremely sensitive to touch, yet can be used in exactly the same way as a normal mouse.” With that he got up and said, "If you'll excuse me though, it's time to be off. I’m sure we’ll meet up again and you can let me know what you think. Idris, it’s been a pleasure." He held out his hand, which Idris took and shook. As he did so, the older man looked into his eyes and said, "For some, it's only when they lose themselves, they find out who they truly are." With that, he turned and walked off onto the road from the pub.
Idris watched him round the corner to walk up the hill away from the creek. As he disappeared out of sight, Idris realised that the man had addressed him by name. Intrigued, he quickly followed, with the intent to challenge him. When he turned the corner and looked up the road, the stranger was nowhere to be seen. It was as though, having played his part, he had walked into the wings —leaving Idris alone on the stage.
Returning to his seat, Idris looked at the CD-ROM case he held in his hand. The cover was an abstract image of billowing, colourful gossamer, which gave the case a hint of mystique, with the title bannered across it: What will IT be? Idris looked up at the inn sign. Would using this software be like opening Pandora's Box, with the resulting uncertainty? If that was the case, it mirrored life. There was an element of risk in all ventures, where the end could seldom be deduced. Maybe this could be the key to him finding more purpose and excitement. Turning the case over absentmindedly, he knew he would take the risk. The challenge was one he wouldn’t, indeed he couldn’t, resist.