December 27, 2011
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The Bug

Since it came up in Twitter discussion and isn’t very accessible right now – working on that – here’s my review of Ellen Ullman’s The Bug from Tekka issue 3.

Set in the 1980s, The Bug is an account of the middle and late stages of a major commercial software development effort. As always, the software has bugs large and small; UI-1017, an intermittent crash discovered by the narrator, grows and grows until it threatens the entire project. Venture capitalists get involved (and of course that's a big help), managers get fired, the pressure mounts, and star programmer Ethan Levin is gradually driven mad.

Madness is what he deserves, it seems. Ullman carefully and gratuitously strips him of any sympathetic or attractive trait. He's smart and capable, of course -- otherwise he couldn't be the star programmer -- but he's never allowed to be smart or capable on stage. Instead, he's made unattractive, uncommunicative, and given odious personal habits. When Ullman wants to show he's depressed, she makes him drink cheap bourbon from the bottle. Why not single-malt whisky? Why not good wine? Why not cocaine? This was the apex of pop cocaine, Ethan has to be making a lot of money, he's living alone, he has nothing else to spend it on.

Ullman takes great care to make the mystery plausible and to get the computing details right. She succeeds: there are no howlers, the problem is plausible, the fallout is right. By the midpoint of the book I was fairly sure I knew where the source of the bug had to lie. It turned out I was right, but that's not the book's fault; I do this every day. On the technical side, Ullman plays fair and handles her material well.

But when it comes to her characters, Ullman is brutal. The narrator, a failed PhD linguist who, we are told, will grow to become a wealthy, world-travelling QA consultant, is drawn with a modicum of sympathy. One minor character, the sexy German night sysadmin, is described with imagination and some flair -- but, since she has nothing much to do, she hardly helps. The developers are all physically unattractive, uncommunicative, and irresponsible. The programmers aren't very nice to the testers: naturally, they cannot end well.

Ethan's faults and limitations are pasted on; the story would unfold in much the same way if you replaced Ethan with Sam Spade. Ullman's hero quite possibly has Asperger's Syndrome. His colleagues and managers don't know this -- it's the 80s and Asperger's didn't make it into the DSM until 1994. But the better angels of their nature should have known better, even then, and Ullman surely should know better now. Writing with sympathy about mental affliction is commendable, but punishing characters because they suffer from torments which you have contrived to inflict upon them seems merely mean.