Hard-Wired for Trouble

The Washington Post
May 28, 2003

By Ellen Ullman
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 355 pp. $23.95

Reviewed by David Futrelle

In her 1997 memoir, "Close to the Machine," Ellen Ullman offered a surprisingly insightful account of a seemingly unprepossessing subject: her life as a computer programmer. Indeed, the book was so sharply written it was hard to believe it was crafted by someone who'd spent two decades of her life churning out efficient, impersonal code. In "The Bug," her first novel, Ullman returns to many of the same themes that animated her memoir, examining the lives of characters who turn to the cold logic of programming in an attempt to escape the messiness of the real world.

The novel, set at a software start-up in 1984, tells the intertwined stories of Roberta Walton, an overeducated academic refugee making a living as a software tester, and Ethan Levin, a veteran programmer whose life begins to uncoil as he faces off against an unpredictable, and seemingly unkillable, software bug hiding somewhere in the deep recesses of his code. As the novel begins, Ethan seems on top of his game, a confident coder who's the only one at the start-up able to keep on schedule as the company grinds toward its first software release. When Roberta brings him the first report of the bug of the book's title -- UI-1017 -- he dismisses it as a "user error" caused not by his code but by Roberta's incompetence. But the bug won't be banished, returning again and again to crash software demos at the most inopportune moments, spooking potential clients and investors and threatening to bring the company itself to an ignominious end.

Ethan ultimately comes to see his bug as "a living menace, an irrational force in the world, some channel into chaos where programming logic could not go." He tries his best to keep the world at bay as he chases the bug, unscrewing the buzzing fluorescent lights in his office and plugging his ears as he goes through his code line by line, getting so close to the machine his boss begins to worry that his bug search has become a "sick, autistic hobby."

Slowly the elusive bug seems to pull all of Ethan's life into chaos. His relationship with his girlfriend disintegrates; he sends her packing after discovering her in bed with her odoriferous hippie lover, leaving him alone in a barren apartment with little but booze and his computer to keep him company.

In between marathon debugging sessions he returns to another autistic hobby, tinkering with a program designed to simulate a miniature ecosystem of little ASCII creatures who forage and feed, live and die, according to a simple set of rules in a world contained within the hermetic boundaries of his code. Unlike the "o- creatures" in his simulated world, programmed to migrate when food supplies run scare, Ethan can't figure out how to move on with his life.

The bug has an altogether different impact on Roberta. While at first it seems to unsettle her life much as it does Ethan's, it ultimately energizes her, forcing her to dive headfirst into the world of programming and "to become the engineer I'd cynically been pretending to be." Ullman, who came to the world of programming in 1978 as a reluctant refugee from academia, writes eloquently of her - - er, Roberta's -- flush of excitement as she leaves behind the ponderous fuzziness of postmodern dogma for the hyper-precision of programming. Roberta finds herself "glad to be rid of the drag of philosophy, freed from the whole morass of convoluted academic thinking. The cleanliness of programming was a balm. . . . I was striving for a certain clarity and simplicity, a form of impersonal beauty."

In the end, it is Roberta, the programming novice, who is able to locate the elusive bug. Though this book sparkles intermittently with the sharp insight and eloquent prose that made "Close to the Machine" such a compelling read, it is ultimately unsatisfying. The plot borders on melodrama -- and slow-moving melodrama at that -- creaking over 300-plus pages to its predictable end. And while Ullman still has an eye for telling detail as she describes the hothouse environment of the software start-up, most of the characters in the book don't feel convincingly real -- with the notable exception of Roberta, who essentially serves as Ullman's stand-in. Indeed, the best parts of the book are those with only a tangential relation to its lumbering plot: the semi- autobiographical slices of "Roberta's" present-day life that read like a sort of coda to "Close to the Machine." As is so often the case, real life proves more interesting than carefully constructed simulations.