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The Bug Hardcover – May 6, 2003

3.9 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Essayist, memoirist (Close to the Machine) and computer industry pioneer Ullman has now produced an illuminating novel about the fate of a programmer, Ethan Levin, who wrestles with an ineradicable bug in the heroic era of computing. It is 1984, and Telligentsia is an information technology startup engaged in creating a database and an interface to access it. While such a project is ho-hum now, at the time screen graphics were a novelty and the mouse was a puzzling and esoteric artifact. The story is narrated by Roberta Walton from the perspective of 2000, remembering her first IT job as a quality-checker for Telligentsia, which she takes after a failed bid for an academic job in linguistics. Berta finds Ethan's bug, UI-1017, but there's a catch: it appears and disappears erratically, so she can't get a "core dump"-a picture of the part of the code where the bug resides. Ethan must do the debugging, but he's in no shape to face the problem. Insecure about his job because he doesn't have an advanced computer science degree, he codes far into the night, driving his neglected girlfriend, Joanna, into the arms of a weedy hippie. Everybody at Telligentsia secretly feels at sea, but for Ethan the uncertainty starts to have deep psychological effects. As Berta comes to realize, Ethan's ever more alarming quirks are correlatives of the deeper collective madness of Telligentsia's impossible schedules and uncertain innovations. As she proved she could in Close to the Machine, Ullman brings to the programmer mindset, in numerous finely wrought asides, a combination of poetic and philosophical sensibilities that plumb the abstruse depths of technological creation.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Ethan Levin, programmer at a database start-up in the mid 1980s, has a serious bug to find, one that freezes the whole program. However, the elusive bug cannot be reliably reproduced; it seems to rear its ugly head only during high-stakes demonstrations for venture capitalists and prospective clients. As the bug continues to elude Levin and Roberta, the software tester, the idea that it has a life of its own seems less and less a joke (even to fellow employees), and more believable. While this novel can be enjoyed for its humor (albeit in a wry and dark sort of way), there is undoubtedly deeper meaning behind the individual trials of Levin and Roberta. Ullman's poetic and philosophical inclination shine through a story that is, on the surface, about technology. However, readers may gain a closer understanding of the way people interact with technology, the way small things can have huge ripple effects that profoundly affect people's lives, the way life itself reveals its meaning. Gavin Quinn
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; 1st edition (May 6, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385508603
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385508605
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #988,229 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Among other works, Ellen Ullman has previously written the non-fiction CLOSE TO THE MACHINE and "Programming the post-human: computer science redefines 'life.'" It was the gosh-wow aspects of these two works that convinced me to anticipate, seek, and read her first, vivid novel, THE BUG. (What an excellent metaphor! The 'bug' does more than double duty: there is the software bug, the bugs in Ethan's life, how Joanna bugs him, etc.)
The surprise? That someone who has spent the majority of her adult life writing code - you know, 1s and 0s, Boolean logic gates, etc - could so artfully employ the writer's art of metaphor, simile, misdirection, style, and a winking eye (always anathema when programming computers)! Within the novel, Ullman shares computer-programming arcana that could be, should be fodder for inducing sleep... yet isn't. Where do these writers come from? How do they do it - i.e., make it appear so easy?
And yet nothing adequately prepares the reader for THE BUG. Wow. Ellen Ullman breathes life into each character, especially core protagonists Ethan Levin and Roberta Walton. For example, as master-coder Ethan races to find and extinguish the bug in his software, he finally realizes that he must first de-code his life; unfortunately, he makes this 'vision quest' unaided and pays the price. And when things happen (to say more would be to divulge too much), all the birds come home to roost. Near novel's end, a dead-on comment made to Ethan from another character galvanizes him to action. His life will never be the same. Ullman has also excellently foreshadowed the novel's seemingly unexpected dénouement; her use of Conway's GAME OF LIFE as metaphor, as meaning, is both expert and masterful. The novel's theme resolves in a coruscating coda to the main story.
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Format: Hardcover
I recently read The Bug by Ellen Ullman. She's been one of my favorite writers on computers. Close to the Machine was her memoir of working as a programmer. I thought she'd done an excellent job of explaining what the inner life of programming was like. It's the only book on computers that i've ever insisted that my wife -- a non techie -- read. (She didn't like it, but nevermind.)
My anticipation grew as soon as i heard of her new novel. It's about a programmer, a tester and a bug that drives them crazy. My expectations were so high that i worried i could only be disappointed.
The book is unsettling and it's taken me some time after reading it to decide what to think of it. Of course, the fact that it's made me think automatically means its worthwhile.
First off, it does a good job of portraying what it's like to work, day after day, programming and testing: the dreadful meetings, the insane deadlines, the endless nerdy humor, the overwhelming technical minutia. Secondly, it's a grim story, and it only gets grimmer as the book progresses. It contains several allusions to Frankenstein, and doesn't make programming look much fun; if you're looking for a peaen to programming, stick with Wired.
I checked many reviews from other readers. Mostly, they cited these two aspects -- its versimilitude and darkness -- as reasons why they did or didn't like it ("too technical", "won't dissapoint programmers", "lacks humor", "a cautionary tale"). The surprise ending certainly made me uncomfortable. The veracity allows it to be quite haunting.
The story centers around a bug that is hard to reproduce and that mostly occurs when the product is being demonstrated to investors and potential customers. The cause of this bug is eventually explained.
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Format: Hardcover
First, let me state that I have a lot of respect for Ms. Ullman as an Essayist on computer technology and techie org behavior.
Being a refugee from geekdom, THE BUG: A NOVEL accurately describes the technology and socio-dynamics of writing software in those bygone days. However, the novel is wan and bloodless. Ms. Ullman's prose is crisp and clean to read, but it fails to convey strong emotion. In particular, she misses the potential for the humor, ironic, puerile, or otherwise in the story.
THE BUG: A NOVEL is a read that evokes in me a lot of nostalgia, but it is hardly, "gripping, exciting, and compelling".
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is one of the most impressive novels I've read in the last few years. It takes on issues of love, hate, ego and the much written about "human condition" and views them through what to most outsiders seems the most inhuman world of computer technology and software engineering. It takes the reader into the soul of the machine as only a few non-fiction works have previously done - "The Soul Of The New Machine" and Clifford Stoll's "The Cuckoo's Egg" spring to mind - and weaves a very human story of love, betrayal and madness around and within it.

Ullman's writing is clean, precise and emotionally spot-on, her characters are all too real to anyone who has worked in the software industry. Ethan Levin, software engineer lost between the world of dbx, cc and his broken relationships with human beings, is finely drawn and involving. A flawed tragic character descending into a madness Shakespeare would have recognised instantly. Roberta the software tester and former linguist who becomes a programmer as Ethan decays in front of her is also tragic, lost and very human, if more capable than Ethan of introspection and thus survival.

The wisdom with popular science books is that for every equation they contain the readership is cut in half. I would have thought things would be at least as bad for a novel that contains C code... but not in this case. Ullman fits the technical explanations and some code into the text with admirable dexterity and clarity that anyone should be able to follow. It was a very brave course to take, it could easily have ended up as an indigestible geeky info dump, but she pulls it off extremley well.
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