The Bug

Author: Ellen Ullman



Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Reviewed by: Simon Wistow

Ellen Ullman's first book, "Close to the Machine" described English Major turned Programmer Ullman's life as a coder during the boom in San Fransisco. It won acclaim for its fascinating dissection of hacker culture from a knowledgeable but removed viewpoint. Her second book, 6 years in the making, is a novel but explores the same themes of programmers interacting with the wider social world.

The Bug is very simpleto explain simply. Told mostly from the perspective of Roberta Walton, a tester at a large software company, it follows the story of Ethan Levin, a programmer at the same company.

Walton finds a bug, UI-1071, which is assigned to Levin who, unable to reproduce it, dismisses it. However it begins popping up at embarassing times - at trade shows and demos, customer previews and sales pitches. Yet no one can reliably trigger it or save a core dump. Slowly but surely the bug, nicknamed The Joker, consumes Levin's life.

So, that's the simplistic review and in some ways it's satisfactory - as a programmer (or at least as someone who pretends to be one) I recognised bits of myself in Levin. Any book that insert a C programming tutorial halfway through the book and get away with it without breaking the narrative flow is always going to be a book programmers can enjoy.

However that's really only scratching the surface. People have compared the book Moby Dick - both books attempt to explore the madness that obsession can bring - but, in reality, the obsession with The Joker is as much a metaphor for Ethan's relationship with his wife and then, later, those around him at work and in the rest of his increasingly narrow life.

By using this displacement, characterised by Levin's denial and echoed both in the state of his health, his house and the status of the company he and Roberta both work for, Ullman neatly allows non-programmers to understand the kind of compulsive driving force that programming can be whilst holding up a mirror to those of us who do program.

The Slashdot geek chorus have criticised the ending of the book - seemingly split between declaiming it as too depressing, to unrealistic or somehow factually inaccurate. Without giving the ending away I'd like to say that I found it none of these. Whilst superficially the ending is gloomy there's actually an air of release. As for the others, well, it's the Slashdot crowd - they'll always find something complain about.

In conclusion - not easy going but definitely worth picking up.