Ellen Ullman

"The Bug"

(Reviewed by Sudheer Apte JUL 8, 2003)

The peculiar world of computer techies, mostly ignored in literary fiction, is a specialty of Ellen Ullman. In her first novel, The Bug, the main character is a computer programmer, Ethan Levin, working long hours at a Bay Area software startup circa 1985. The story of his life is told partly through the eyes of a test engineer named Roberta, who writes in the first person and sounds like a stand-in for the author.

We learn that Ethan Levin, in his mid-thirties, is a deeply insecure and unhappy man. He marinates in a souring relationship with his live-in girlfriend in a noisy rented house. At work he shares an office with two other programmers with whom he doesn't get along. His career at the precarious company, Telligentsia, is disappointing and stressful. In particular, there is a bug in his program that makes it fail sporadically, making the software product difficult to sell. He is responsible for fixing the problem, and even though he chases the bug obsessively for months, he is never able to track it down.

Ellen Ullman's writing makes the arcana of commercial software development accessible to outsiders. Her explanation of the particular bug, how it happened, and how it was finally solved, clarifies without over-simplification, and is worth a read as a kind of detective story.

Some of her extrapolations about the significance of the bug, though, over-analyze and ascribe deep meanings to straightforward phenomena. For example, a low-frequency sampling of analog signals generated by the computer mouse, which causes the bug to reproduce erratically, is posed as a revelation about the fundamental limitation of machines versus people. While this makes for a good read, in fact signal sampling effects are quite universal and well understood, and they have nothing to do with the limitation of machines versus people per se.

In the character of Ethan Levin, she shows an introverted, abrasive, insecure personality. All true to type: the stereotypical computer techie is above all a smart-aleck who uses his superior knowledge of technical matters to beat down everyone else. The plot requires that we empathize with him, though, and he is painted in such an unsympathetic light that it is hard to do so.

On the other hand, he is balanced by some of the other characters, who are equally unlikeable. His liberal-arts girlfriend who derisively dismisses his favorite project as frivolous and worthless, and later Roberta who "tell[s] him [...] how slyly, and with what educated hauteur, his now ex-girlfriend had disparaged him", use their knowledge of their own field, literature, as a weapon of sarcasm to prove their own superiority.

There are two questions that could be asked about The Bug. First, as a reader of fiction, do we care about Ethan Levin or the other characters? Perhaps not very much, although the plot is interesting and the subject does allow for an element of suspense. Second, as a lay reader, do we learn something interesting about what it is that computer people do every day? Here, I think the answer is probably yes.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 31 reviews


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About the Author:

Ellen UllmanEllen Ullman worked as a computer programmer for over twenty years, entering the field when few women were part of the computing culture. She is the author of the cult classic memoir Close to the Machine. She currently writes for Harper's, Wired, and Salon, and has been a regular guest commentator on NPR.

She lives in San Francisco, California.

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