Customer Reviews: The Bug: A Novel
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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.
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on July 11, 2003
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. I disagree with everal readers who have said that they couldn't believe that this bug could happen or could remain dormant for so long. Bugs often look obvious when you actually find them.
Others have sniffed that the code on page 337 actually contains a second bug, which is true enough. It's pretty glaring. I suspect that even non-coders who compare the code to the diagram on the facing page will find it. But this only proves how easy it is for bugs to happen in the first place. (I suspect this bug will be fixed in later editions of the book.)
Personally, i appreciated how the story hinges on how the programmer and tester must overcome their mutual hostility before they can work together to eventually understand the cause of the bug. Encouraging programmers and testers to work together better has been a theme i've written about and is central to my own consulting practice. It's nice to see more writing on the topic.
The book also offers a bit of advice for consultants. The tester eventually becomes a quality assurance consultant. It's from this vantage point that she narrates the events of the book. She reports that the ruder she became to her clients, the more money they would pay her.
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on May 13, 2003
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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on February 15, 2005
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.

Her ability to see the world and relationships through the eyes of men is quite spooky at times, particularly men caught up in the challenges, excitement and self-absorbtion that can be found in the world of code and debugging. She ties it all back to our essential humanity and analog vs digtal world views in a satisfying conclusion.

This is one hell of a book.
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on August 27, 2005
I think that the highest compliment I can pay this book is that the months that have passed since I read it have not dimmed my memory of the story. Background: I was headed for a career as a computer programmer but got sidetracked into law school--so the coding process, complete with the obsessive focus on debugging, is not foreign to me. The story is creepy because it seems so real and it hit this reader at least kind of close to home; sometimes we allow short-term goals to eclipse more important endeavors, for which we pay a price.

"The Bug" is the story of a guy who just loses it. This book's impact derives from the juxtaposition of the protagonist's search for what is later revealed to be a very simple error in computer code with what we come to see as an equally simple flaw in the protagonists own outlook on life. By obsessively focusing on his own needs for accomplishment or satisfaction, Ms. Ullman chronicles her main character's descent into despair and allows us the omniscience to see what was happening. It is a slow motion train wreck. Good fiction allows us to experience vicariously that which we hope to never experience in reality. Anyone who reads this book will feel better about their own life and will determine to do better. Isn't that a good measure of a successful work of art?
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The Bug. Kind of an odd title for a novel--what is novelist Ellen Ullman referring to? Is it the bug that has invaded a computer program designed by protagonist Ethan Levin in the mid-1980s, or is it also something less obvious, a deeper bug in Ethan's life. Ethan is pretty much all work, no play, and he has the disintegrating life--love life, friendships--to prove it. The program he has designed has a bug in it, a bug discovered by software tester Roberta Walton. Ethan spends much of the novel tracking the bug down, and helped, at times, by Roberta. The narrative moves forward on two paths--Roberta tells her side of the story from her 2000 vantage point, while an omniscient narrator fills us in on Ethan's disintegrating life. This is a well written story--the plot isn't all that clever or unique, but neither is it predictable. There is much in here of computer codes--but that shouldn't turn the computer neophyte off. I am sure much of that went over my head, but don't think that affected my enjoyment of the novel. The Bug is an entertaining, quick read.
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on June 28, 2003
If you are a professional programmer and you wish to explain what you do to a mystified wife/husband/friend give them this book. It gets across the joy and frustration of programming. It describes the interactions between management, quality analysis technicians, designers, and programmers. It weaves together the pressures of schedule, acquiring technical competence, juggling work and personal relationships, and preserving self-esteem in a startup company. The technical aspects of the novel are accurate and entirely in service to the plot. The bug itself is rather clever and by no means a simple example. Professional programmers will be impressed with the author's ability to explain all of this to readers with no technical background.
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VINE VOICEon July 3, 2012
I recently attended a party at which people were discussing this book, as well as Ullman's later book By Blood. Intrigued by the subject matter as well as by their praise, I picked up a copy.

This is a remarkable book, a character study of the narrator (a professionally successful female software tester around the time of the dotcom crash, considering an episode from early in her career), and of a doomed programmer named Ethan Levin whose life imploded amidst a struggling venture-funded startup at which she had worked, fifteen years earlier.

Levin is not entirely a likeable character, though we sympathize with him. He had hoped to be an academic, but had to leave to join the workforce when his father died. He is not respected at work because of his background in "corporate" programming (Ullman totally grasps the mutual contempt between different groups of software engineers), and because a software bug that ultimately threatens the survival of their company seems to be his fault.

I would characterize the book as true science fiction, even if set in the past. In the spirit of Arthur C Clarke, Ullman uses computer programs to discuss the nature of life, and the emergence of intelligence, and even the fear of death. As in Clarke's writing, software can come to seem malicious, though explanations for any metaphysically worrying aspects of the bug's behavior are ultimately straightforward.

The book gets to be a little repetitive about 2/3 of the way through. Levin's personality flaws have been made clear, and I think nothing is gained by showing us three or four more times his descent into self-destruction. The character would probably be labelled mildly autistic today, but in the 1980s, he was just a jerk in an industry that tolerated a lot of idiosyncrasy. The breakup with his girlfriend is similarly dragged out a bit too much (and there is a 'surprise' related to that breakup that I won't reveal here, and which I think was unnecessary).

I'd probably give 4.5 stars if that were a choice. The book is well written and will be appreciated especially by anybody who has ever programmed for a living.
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on September 16, 2003
Ethan Levin's boss and fellow programmer tells him "Look..Programming starts out like its going to be architecture...theoretical and abstract and spatial and up-in-the-head...then it has this nasty tendency to turn into plumbing." Unfortunately, so does the plot of this book. You think you will get a brilliant and thought-out mystery and wind up with a plodding plot. Ethan's problem is that he needs to be a plumber and fix a bug that arose in one of his codes. But the bug proves so elusive and enduring, showing up at key moments such as sales demonstrations, in front of the VCs, etc and then disappearing again with no "core dump" of information that might help locate it, that it earns the name the Jester. Not just the Jester. Levin's Jester. The pursuit of this bug provides the structure of this novel - Levin's life devolves as his obsession with solving the problem grows, and the bug affects the company's future.
Ellen Ullman comes close to writing a fine novel about the world of computer programmers in the early eighties. Coding becomes a reflection of and a contrast to human thought, a metaphor that is played out in a simulated ecosystem Ethan developed in graduate school that he turns to when "it seems my life has gone from one thing to another without my having much to say about it". Based on a theory called Life: the game, this simplified and controlled simulation is contrasted against Ethan's life that is both simple and complex, willed and spinning out of control, as he maintains his schedule and loses his girl friend. However, this metaphor is most successful in the beginning and end of the novel but seems to lose its literary power in the middle, become a mere plot device.
A bigger problem lies in the structure of the novel, which opens and ends with a first person narrator named Roberta who first discovered the bug when she was Ethan's tester and is looking back almost 20 years. Roberta also shows up in the mainly third person narrated main section, but mostly as a minor character, as she must have seemed to Ethan. But occasionally the first-person voice jumps back in, providing details of her life and loves back then, her own confrontations with the bug. These moments are so few that rather than creating an alternating and enriching viewpoint, they are jarring, and the character of Roberta in these passages seems beside the point of the action, which is what is happening to Ethan. The details of her love life have no reason to be there except perhaps to attempt to make her more authentic, but they slow the novel down. Her training as a linguistic does add some philosophical musings to the book as she contrasts the accretion of meaning to symbols with the world of artificial language. But this musing that establishes her voice occurs quite early in the book. By the end of the book, these references disappear, as does the voice and the Roberta we see could have been any other character.
Still, the biggest complaint with Roberta as narrator is that her jumping to the foreground now and then creates a distance the tale does not need and slows the action. Then, in the end, the voice of Roberta is used to tie up loose ends, but a tighter finer control of the plot could have done that as well.
Still, interesting books about computer programming are few and far between. The book begins as one of the better, and though it falls short of its promise, you will care enough to keep reading to the end.
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on August 15, 2015
This is a remarkably dense, intense novel. Someone described Ullman's style as Gothic, and I'd agree. Getting inside the head of an obsessive programmer, and the sociology of a tech startup, is what the book is about, and very well carried out, but sometimes not much fun. Definitely worth reading if you're interested in that world, but not for summer at the beach.
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