Downloading Before the Downloaders: John Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect

Since the 1980s Transhumanists such as Marvin Minsky, have looked forward to humans eventually leaving their bodies to download themselves into Artificial Intelligences, either robots or the digital universe of cyberspace. This prospect has been explored in Science Fiction in the Cyberpunk novels and short stories of writers such as William Gibson, Bruce Stirling and Pat Cadigan, while the Australian computer programmer and SF writer, Greg Egan, has similarly explored what it would mean to download one’s personality on to computer.

John Sladek

A decade before these writers and scientists began to explore the possibilities and consequences of entering cyberspace, the American writer John Sladek also discussed the experience of being encoded into a computer programme in his 1970 novel, the Muller-Fokker Effect. Sladek’s Science Fiction was deeply satirical, sending up and ridiculing the stupidity and absurdities of contemporary America. His first story, ‘Masterson and the Clerks’, from 1967, attacked consumerism and office culture. He also parodied the SF story and its themes, using logical puzzles while attempting to work out the real problems that would arise from them.

One of the SF themes in which he was particularly interested was Artificial Intelligence, which he explored most notably in three novels, the Muller-Fokker Effect, and the two ‘Roderick’ stories, Roderick, of The Education of Young Machine, 1980, and Roderick at Random, or, The Further Education of a Young Machine, 1983. The Muller-Fokker Effect describes what happens when its hero, Bob Shairp, is translated into computer data and recorded on tape through a newly discovered process. Brian Aldiss, in his history of Science Fiction, the Trillion Year Spree, describes it as ‘a deeply satirical book, homing in on the US Army, evangelism, newspapers and the like for its targets, with an overall sense of fun reminiscent of the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and Sheckley.’ In the Muller-Fokker Effect, Sladek shows the hero’s attempts to establish whether or not he exists and can move, as a computer flowchart in the figure of a man. It’s a neat attempt to describe visually the hero’s problematic nature as a piece of computer data.

John Clute in his Science Fiction: An Illustrated Encyclopedia states that ‘as with Vonnegut’s work, they show a man helplessly in love with a native land whose flaws – and whose disastrous pell-mell rush over the abyss into the horror of the next century – he compulsively records, both for our merriment, and for our betterment. The recurring figures – robots, insane executives, manic AIs – tell recurring jokes and teach a recurring lesson. They teach us that just being alive in these times is so hilarious that we could all die laughing’. Perhaps with the ever advancing developments in Virtual Reality and computer technology, it might be a good time to ponder Sladek’s warnings over the dangers of such technology and the uses to which they are put, rather than become too enthusiastic about using it in a grand evolutionary leap to transcend the human condition. It’s possible that no matter what the form or nature of its intelligence, whether organic or mechanical, human folly will remain constant.

Muller Fokker Diagram

Brian Aldiss with David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd 1986) 306.

John Clute, Science Fiction: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Dorling Kindersley 1995) 186.

One Response to “Downloading Before the Downloaders: John Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect”

  1. rainbowwarriorlizzie Says:


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