cover image THE BUG


Ellen Ullman, . . Doubleday, $23.95 (368pp) ISBN 978-0-385-50860-5

Essayist, memoirist (Close to the Machine) and computer industry pioneer Ullman has now produced an illuminating novel about the fate of a programmer, Ethan Levin, who wrestles with an ineradicable bug in the heroic era of computing. It is 1984, and Telligentsia is an information technology startup engaged in creating a database and an interface to access it. While such a project is ho-hum now, at the time screen graphics were a novelty and the mouse was a puzzling and esoteric artifact. The story is narrated by Roberta Walton from the perspective of 2000, remembering her first IT job as a quality-checker for Telligentsia, which she takes after a failed bid for an academic job in linguistics. Berta finds Ethan's bug, UI-1017, but there's a catch: it appears and disappears erratically, so she can't get a "core dump"—a picture of the part of the code where the bug resides. Ethan must do the debugging, but he's in no shape to face the problem. Insecure about his job because he doesn't have an advanced computer science degree, he codes far into the night, driving his neglected girlfriend, Joanna, into the arms of a weedy hippie. Everybody at Telligentsia secretly feels at sea, but for Ethan the uncertainty starts to have deep psychological effects. As Berta comes to realize, Ethan's ever more alarming quirks are correlatives of the deeper collective madness of Telligentsia's impossible schedules and uncertain innovations. As she proved she could in Close to the Machine, Ullman brings to the programmer mindset, in numerous finely wrought asides, a combination of poetic and philosophical sensibilities that plumb the abstruse depths of technological creation. (May)

Forecast:Out-of-work programmers with plenty of time for reading are a potential audience for this novel, but literary non-techies looking to crack the secrets of computer culture are an even likelier bet. It's not as slickly pop as Douglas Coupland's Microserfs, but will appeal to a similar demographic.