Brenda Harris, trainee psychiatrist at H.M. Prison Drakebury, almost groaned as she read the report on Prisoner 60149837. A first interview with a fallen computer-programmer from Shepherd’s Bush was the kind of thing only a black Monday-morning like the one outside her window could offer. She read through the brief report again and, though relatively young and inexperienced, she was beginning to recognise an unsolvable problem kicked her way when she saw one. She looked again at the report. The clipped phrases of her supervisor told of persistent child sex-offender Harmsworth, Frank: male, 35 y/o. Somewhat withdrawn, finds socialising difficult, contemptuous of other inmates. Well educated. Works in library. Taking extramural PhD. No sign of latent schizophrenia. Scores high in intelligence tests. Physical condition very good. No medication. Not violent.
One of the reasons why they needed a lot less medication now was that a generation of social-psychologists had gone to work on pleasantly lit “situation-rooms” like the one Brenda was now in, with its bland prints against coordinated shades of wall and ceiling. But despite cheery carpets, the absence of window-bars, and functional furniture of pastel-fabrics and bright blond wood, everything here was pure plot. The calming was carefully engineered, like most socially applied technology, for reassurance prior to the injection of some deep-laid suggestion. On a shelf were a few well-dusted volumes of airport-lounge foil-fiction and an equally friendly looking coffee-machine whose scent while working was thought by all to calm the savage breast. In this room there would be nothing to really object to, no hint of abrasive surface, challenging shape, no interesting shade or angle, and certainly no shadow. Persuasion, control, and conformist pressure were now professionally managed and had exquisitely sophisticated software-tools. Hun-vocabulary, white coats, and hypodermic syringes were a million miles away from Brenda’s torn jumper and jeans. Few could refuse the hands of comfort and friendship, just as few could refuse far more obvious salesmen. In places such as this room any act of violence would look as ludicrous as a genuine loss of temper on TV. Here, the savage thought was outperformed almost before it occurred. The very idea of the rending of flesh was here immediately rendered as out-of-date as the green-screen computer. In the late twentieth-century dungeons and red-hot implements had come a long way.
Brenda was quite surprised when the subject came in and smilingly accepted her offer of coffee. He was rugged, strongly handsome if scarred, and exhibited a warm, polite intelligence as if anxious to cooperate, even to learn the secrets of her perpetual incarceration in H.M. Prisons. But there was no doubt that the upper-middle-class Frank Harmsworth had a serious problem, for when he was released from prison, within a few days he would make his way to the nearest store and would fondle very young children sexually. These actions were anything but furtive. Frank chose good weather and busy Saturday mornings in large supermarkets for the miniature-riots which always ensued. Further to his action he did not try to escape and suffered many injuries before being eventually detained and arrested. Because of this passivity he had been nearly lynched on several occasions, and beaten half to death on others.
“It’s a system, you see. A single trigger. I love to see it in action. Very elegant. Everything balanced on that single simple action, hardly lasting seconds.”
“Is it worth it?”
As soon as Brenda heard her own voice she knew she had made a mistake. The warmth vanished and the man almost sneered, as if bitterly disappointed at the plain simplicity of Brenda’s question and its hint of shopkeeper values.
A disappointed Frank Harmsworth now looked at Brenda not as an intelligent well-read psychiatrist but as a market trader attempting philosophy. Gone in a flash was the warmth. Brenda cursed herself inwardly. She had lost the prisoner’s respect before she had even started. Now it was going to be hard.
“All knowledge gained is worth it.”
“With others paying the price?” Another petit-bourgeois response, what was the matter with her mind this morning? She was plunging in with leading remarks worthy of a third-rate probation officer.
“I would never hurt them. But that’s not the point. It’s the shortest way to pure Pavlovian theatre I know, that’s all.”
“Violation of innocents?” Leading question, headline vocabulary: oh… this would not do. If she could not get her mental focus together she would just have to politely terminate the interview. Thanking her lucky stars the meeting was not being taped for her supervisor. Usually she was good at her job, committed to it, and handled the people before her with growing skill but the charming, clever and extremely devious Harmsworth put her off somehow; she had never felt herself to be on such a slippery slope, with her hard-won skills and fought-for experience melting away, and driven to questioning like a young hesitant intern in therapy-training.
“I don’t violate them. I never would. If the circumstances came where a child welcomed my advances, then I would not continue.”
“Couldn’t you simulate it, as they do with atomic tests?”
That was a little better, but the change in her emphasis and vocabulary had been noted by Harmsworth’s penetrating eyes. Brenda knew now she was dealing with a far cleverer man than she’d ever supposed. She had to get a grip. If she went on like this the man in front of her would control the whole interview. Brenda listened as Frank explained again, rather condescendingly.
“The whole thing is a purely intellectual simulation anyway. It’s a discovery of attitude-structures. It’s the shortest way I know to maximum outrage, I am not in the least bit sexually interested in children.”
“But what about the pain and injury you suffer?”
That was a lot better, turn back the question to the client, but still far too worthy and sensible. Not many marks out of ten for that. She was thinking like an amateur, and somehow the coffee tasted awful. Frank was out-drinking her, out-gunning her, outranking her, and making Brenda want to fling her coffee about the room’s pastel-shades—a move which she was sure would have got her many more marks in Frank’s eyes.
“The pain is worth going through.”
“To learn how the stage-fronts work.”
“Everything is a stage-front.”
“But some are better than others?”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘better’.”
“Is there no situation A better than B?”
“Wouldn’t you like to be out of here rather than in?”
“When you have one pound you have one problem, when you have two pounds you have two problems. In or out, it makes no difference.”
Switch track now, break his lock. Keep mobile, never appear to be at a loss. Pivot, swerve, balance, use his own weight against him. With that thought, Brenda felt a little happier. She was warming up as the clouds cleared outside her window and she took care to pause and make better coffee. She was in a learning-mode for the first time in months of bureaucratic hack-work.
“Surely other people matter?”
“I don’t give them any problems. I don’t even touch the child’s private parts. That would disgust me. I am an adult heterosexual. I just put my hand a little under their coat or just a milimeter under their dress. That is sufficient. And then I cop it. The parents love it. All the unpaid bills, the bad car-repair, the TV without a license, the mortgage payments, all their screaming modern pain comes right down on top of my head. I lie there analysing it all whilst they smash me up. It’s a unique viewpoint. You should try it some time. Would be good for scientific truth if not for your career, whichever you prefer.”
“You used the word love.”
“That’s the parents’ word, not mine. I don’t love anything. Every time I have loved in the past I have been wasted. How can you love one change of game from another?”
“Do you hate anything?”
“My only hatred is boredom. Boredom gives me great theological difficulty. I identify the non-event with moral evil.”
“Some would say that what you do is boring.”
“Boring? On my last outing I was only saved from decapitation by being hauled up from a howling crowd by a police helicopter, minus my shoes, socks, and trousers. The incident was attended by the fire-brigade, the ambulance service, and even two truckloads of Royal Marine Commandos from the local barracks. I would hardly call that a non-event.”
“Are you happy with your situation?”
He looked at Brenda with mild amusement, as if she were a puppy playing with a slipper.
“I am learning. Could there be a greater happiness?”
“Is anybody else learning?”
“Probably not. Why do social-democrats like yourself always try and link everything to other people?”
“But your actions are repetitive, that’s boring, surely.”
“That’s only because the cycle isn’t over.”
“The cycle of what?”
Again, he looked at Brenda as if she were a simple-minded utilitarian rationalist confronted with some seething Amazonian paganism of the Ancient World.
“The cycle of initiation.”
“Why then a sexual element?”
“That is merely the area where their sensitivities obviously lie. If they were equally sensitive about cabbages I would enter shops and steal them.”
“Would you murder?”
“So you’re testing your nerve?”
“That’s part of it.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“We all die of them.”
“No. Most die of God’s bad jokes, some die of old television programmes. You’ll probably die of your semi-detached mind and your degree from a provincial university. Least that’s what it sounds like to me.”
This was a strange mind, indeed. Brenda imagined that in it there were no families, smells, old remembered country lanes, knowledge of which gearboxes were better than others or the score at Old Trafford. There were few inefficiencies in toffee-nosed Frank, very little noise in his system: the man in front of her was a mall-simulation cut off from wind and rain. She laughingly imagined that if she reached over she could put an arm right through Harmsworth’s chest and he would still be talking.
“If you are released, would you offend in the same manner again?”
“Of course. Why not? The experiment is not yet over.”
As the hour wore on, the marks on Frank’s cheek, neck, and brow where umbrellas, high-heels, walking-sticks, fists and shopping-bags had scarred him, were a puzzle mockingly offered by him to Brenda as they had been offered to others. She decided that as a computer-programmer of high reputation, Frank had almost entered the world of his creations; the man probably thought the body was a mere bag of replaceable spare-parts, with only the abstract managing software of any real importance. To Brenda, he was the personification of the arrogance of intellect with absolutely nowhere to go. Frank was, in a certain sense, the New Electric Citizen with a hard morality identified with the pre-software world of hard things. Telling Frank not to do something because it was bad was no good to a man whose sense of time was constructed by advertisements for different kinds of shows. Perhaps, thought Brenda, Frank knew that the game-show world would eventually replace any previous hard structures just as old analogue push-buttons, spanners, levers and faders were shown as simulations on the computer screen, with all their previous greasy, heavy, metallic nature fallen to a mere click of the mouse.
Frank now spoke, heavy with a suave confidence which annoyed Brenda intensely.
“Tell me Brenda, what show are you in?”
“I’m not in any kind of show.”
“Congratulations, you must be the first person in history who has not been in any kind of show.”
The man was trying to trap her into trying to impose some new version of an older moral structure, daring her to be clever enough to invent some tarted-up system of persuasive coercion which would “correct” him. Brenda had to be careful; any suggestion of “change” would be demolished, jeered at, kicked aside as being as full of hypocrisies as so many maggots in a rotting carcase. It was now a contest. She had to find a way into Harmsworth without encountering the difficulty of his non-existent moral sense. Harmsworth probably knew Brenda’s problem. He was daring to Brenda to re-invent morality, re-advertise it, give it better PR than that coming from the dusty mouths and chalky faces of old men and women, robot-mouths who always told him not to do certain things. In his donnish way, the man had thrown Brenda a puzzle and he wanted her to solve it.
Brenda fought hard for as deep a relaxation as her opponent. Eventually she spoke, looking him straight in the eye.
“But aren’t there higher orders of games?”
Of a sudden Frank was tense and alert.
“Aren’t there orders of what?”
“More complex forms of games.”
Frank put down her coffee-cup and scratched his head, as if genuinely receptive for the first time.
“The active preservation of innocence. Now there is an ultra-sophisticated game.”
For a second, consumer-shame flickered across Frank’s features. Brenda leaped into the gap between an eager buyer’s expectancies.
“Wake up and smell the coffee—you’re old-fashioned, Frank.”
Some years previous, whilst on a school outing, Brenda had hit the jackpot on an Arcade fruit-machine. She imagined that what was now happening inside Harmsworth’s head was rather like the waterfall of coins she remembered.
“As you describe it, what you do sounds like the last whimper of early 1970s hippy agitprop to me.”
She could almost see the inner pouring of digitised instructions flashing across Frank’s mind like a ticking machine-code forming the new program: intellectual consumerism had won. She could almost hear the synthesised voice: I must up-grade and go now to a better class of updated game-show….I must up-grade and go now to a better class of updated game-show….
The power within a simple change of metaphor astonished Brenda. She was confronted with buying and consuming as expiation and forgiveness, and perhaps even as forms of mercy. Not fact, or even truth, but innocence re-advertised as the greater complexity. Well now, who would have thought it. Frank blushed and looked at Brenda as if he had been caught with last year’s software. Brenda had fired her rabid purchasing instinct. He looked guilty and downcast as if he had been caught, not with his hands near hairless young genitals, but trifling with obsolete simplicities. A suggestion had opened the door and entered the man’s system with a metaphor-virus. His files had opened and a new message had appeared on some inner screen.
He never offended again.
In robot-like fashion Frank changed his name and eventually his entire life. Travelling to a distant country, he became the pillar of a community particularly involved with charitable works for children. But if Frank was happy, Brenda was terrified. Her work became celebrated. In scholarly papers she was praised for inventing a new and powerful psychotherapeutic tool called Virtual Morality. Seeing herself now being hooked up to new-concept professional software in turn—well, rather like her previous patient—she did not really know what that thing called a human being was any more. Rather like Frank again, she knew that now in the Advertising State there was only ever one proper moral alternative.
And that was, upgrade or die.