Buggin’ Out


One of the challenges of writing about computer programming is to make it accessible to the lay reader. Another is to make it interesting at all. Ellen Ullman, author of The Bug, tackles the former with pure moxie; she bets that we’re familiar with code. To solve the latter, she grafts a suspense novel with a novel of ideas, with unfortunately buggy results.

The programmer in distress is Roberta Walton, a humanities Ph.D. turned code tester for a computer firm in the 1980s. The Bug is also the story of Ethan Levin, a programmer “haunted” by a computer bug known as the Jester, which has a malicious tendency to appear only when the system is being demonstrated before big-money clients.

One of the bugs in The Bug is point of view. We get many first-person asides from Walton, but most of the story is a third-person narrative of Levin’s home life, his work, and his thoughts. And what Levin thinks isn’t very compelling. He’s a parody, all dislikes and confusions. At one point, Levin reads in horror the tech documents of a computer mouse, unable to visualize the device.

Highly implausible. Apple’s Lisa shipped with a mouse in 1983, and prototypes had existed for more than a decade; Levin simply would have known what a mouse looked like in 1984. Meanwhile, the Walton segments are full of silly foreshadowing like, “We could both be forgiven for not noticing that a turn of events had begun.”

The Jester escapes diagnosis, remaining unsolved for over a year. Levin is consumed with the hunt; he loses his girlfriend, develops a drinking problem, and worse. The Bug tries to be a novel of ideas à la The Intuitionist, but the topic is a misfire. Software releases are crawling with bugs. If elevator inspectors were as blasé about their jobs as the computer industry is, we’d all be reporting to work in the lobby.

Ullman tackles the issue of writing about programming by providing actual lines of code. The reader can follow its “impoverished language,” but the ultimate solution to Jester is more coincidence than detective work. Because Walton is a novice, she sees what Levin could not, leaving us a denouement that reads like a hastily written patch for a beta release.