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An assured, salutary debut
on May 23, 2003
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.
If you are uncertain about reading this novel, try the pages that begin Part 2 (pp 87-95); there is no inherent betrayal of the novel's secrets. Moreover, they were particularly fun to read, and redolent of the late 1990s.
What an assured, salutary debut. Highly recommended.