Year of a Hundred books – #90 The Bug

The BugThe BugEllen Ullman


The Bug, which tells of the hunt for a particularly enigmatic computer bug that destroys one life and changes another irrevocably for the better, is a good one, but perhaps not for the reasons that the author wanted.

As a story, The Bug is fairly average. Yes, it’s well written, and yes it’s an interesting look at the devastating results of obsession, but I don’t feel like there’s much in the foundation of the plot that’s particularly new and innovative. What makes the book such an enjoyable read is the setting. Taking place primarily in a software design company in 1984, the year of Apple’s infamous advert, the protagonists are a programmer and a tester in a small software company working on a database program. Roberta, the tester (and primary narrator), a young woman with a PhD in anthropology, discovers a bug in the software that causes it to crash catastrophically. The coder, Ethan, whose expertise are also not entirely related to programming, though less remote than the Roberta, at first refuses to acknowledge the bug, and then, when it’s existence is irrefutable, is consumed in the attempts to solve it. Along the way the reader is introduced to a lot of interesting philosophies and techniques built around the idea of computer programming, and it’s this that makes the book really worth reading to people that aren’t familiar with this side of computers.  It really gives some context to the origins of things that we take for granted, and does so in a compelling fashion –for all that the plot isn’t that revolutionary, I still read it in a single sitting.

We also get, as a fairly fundamental aspect of the plot, the position of women in the world of computer programming in the 80s, and while Ullman doesn’t really go into the challenges that are faced -Roberta does feel constantly put down by the programmers, but that’s more from her lack of experience than her gender-, but it still provides an interesting insight. Most of the programmers depicted are men, there’s no shying away from that, but there’s one fairly high ranking woman, the most competent computer technician is a woman, as are all of the testers, including the head of department. There are still issues. As I’ve said, the testers are looked down on by the programmers., the technician is relegated to the night shift and is looked down on by the programmers, and the programmer is looked down on by her colleagues (though all of them look down on Ethan) and isn’t a particularly ‘lady-like’ character, as though she’s gone out of her way to make herself less different from her colleagues. (NB. I debated about including that sentence, and for all it’s irrelevant to her character, I think it’s worth pointing out when discussing this issue) There’s still a fairly heavy gender bias in the direction you’d expect, but it’s actually more egalitarian than I would have imagined.

The framing device the book uses is a generally little clumsy in execution. The initial flashback works, when the Roberta is delayed at immigration by a fault in the program she helped test some twenty years previously, it seems natural for her to think back on it’s developments, but after that it comes off as rather forced. Casual resemblances, mind wandering that happen to coincide with plot development, that sort of thing, all feel a bit forced. However, I think that what it actually depicts, namely the burst of the dot-com bubble, is also rather interesting. This is something that I’ve been aware of, but I’ve never particularly known what the specifics were, the culture that existed in the late 90s of adding an ‘e’ at the start or a ‘.com’ at the end of a brand name to triple the stock price, of investments and speculation on increasingly flimsy technology and business novels, and of sheer power that executives and venture capitalists had over the internet. It sort of makes people claiming that current initiatives in the US or UK governments will undermine the neutrality of the internet seem a little baseless.

Of course, Ullman admits herself that although she is writing from her personal experience as a programmer and an executive, she has taken liberties with some of the specifics, in order to make it more accessible to the layperson. However, the impression I got was that this related more to metaphors and comparisons used to explain the technicalities, rather than the underlying concepts, procedures, and environments that make the book up. I get the impression that there was also a degree of romanticism. Not specifically in the job role of programming, as that’s shown pretty definitively to be cut-throat, unstable, and demanding, but in the idea of computers and the internet as a land of opportunity almost in the way the US was perceived at the turn of the 20th century. This didn’t detract from the book particularly, but it does seem a little hard to relate to nowadays, considering both have become so ubiquitous.

I’m definitely glad I read The Bug; as I’ve said it’s revealed a lot of things that I never knew I was particularly interested in, and Ullman’s prose is engaging enough to make the learning experience a fun one. However, it’s still not a particularly groundbreaking book to read today, making Pushkin Press’ reissue of it last year (the edition I read) seem a little strange.


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