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The Bug: A Novel

3.62  ·  Rating details ·  614 ratings  ·  104 reviews
With a New Introduction by Mary Gaitskill

A PEN/Hemingway Award Finalist

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book

Ellen Ullman is a "rarity, a computer programmer with a poet's feeling for language" (Laura Miller, Salon). The Bug breaks new ground in literary fiction, offering us a deep look into the internal lives of people in the technical world. Set in a start-up company
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Paperback, 384 pages
Published February 28th 2012 by Picador (first published 2003)
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3.62  · 
Rating details
 ·  614 ratings  ·  104 reviews


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Stephen Gallup
Aug 20, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found this quirky novel on a table in the break room where I work, and once I opened it I couldn't put it down.

How could anybody not recognize and identify with this opening scenario/rant:

"And so we waited. Tick-tock, blink-blink, thirty seconds stretched themselves out one by one, a hole in human experience. Waiting for the system: life today is full of such pauses. The soft clacking of computer keys, then the voice on the telephone telling you, 'Just a moment, please.' The credit-card reader
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Bertrand
Lately I have been trying to learn some programming. My mind has been shaped by thirty years of favouring the humanities, so at face value, knowing fifty ways of writing 'hello world!' is not exactly thrilling. Of course there is a lot more to it than that: tantalising analogies with formal logic and linguistics open wide speculative vistas too, though again those were areas I never really dared to look into, precisely because of the 'symbolic compression' they share with programming.

To keep my
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Charles
Nov 17, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
First, let me state that I have a lot of respect for Ms. Ullman as an Essayist on computer technology and techie org behavior.

Being a refugee from geekdom, "The Bug: A Novel" accurately describes the technology and socio-dynamics of writing software in those bygone days. However, the novel is wan and bloodless. Ms. Ullman's prose is crisp and clean to read, but it fails to convey strong emotion. In particular, she misses the potential for the humor, ironic, puerile, or otherwise in the story.

Thi
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Parker
Nov 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This one was so engrossing I canceled plans and stayed up late just to finish it. It's a wonderful novel from Ellen Ullman about software development at a database maker during the early- and mid-80s PC revolution, but it's really about relationships between people, and between people and machines, and how we deal with flaws in those relationships. Most surprising to me, is that the software bug named in the title is fleshed out as a specific and realistic programming error, and is actually the ...more
Lisa Eckstein
Nov 25, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2014
This novel is about the quest to track down and fix a software bug, and I've never read another piece of fiction that makes authentic programming details such an integral part of the plot. If you're tickled by the idea of "kill -9" as a plot point, you'll like this book. But if you don't know what this means, don't worry, because all is entertainingly explained within the text, and the story is about so much more than a bug.

The setting is the mid-1980s, during the early days of graphical user in
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Emily
Nov 08, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2009
The Bug is a novel that my father gave me for Christmas last year; I put off reading it until the summer because I wasn't sure I could read it in good humor while still taking a programming class.

The two novels it most reminds me of couldn't be more different. It's like Microserfs in the way it chronicles the social fabric of a technology project--the collaborations, rivalries, and moments of shared insight. But it's much more literary than Coupland; it also reminds me of Netherland in the way i
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Marie desJardins
A book about computer programming and debugging -- what could be cooler?

Unfortunately, for me, it just didn't hang together that well.

The characters are so stereotyped, I got tired of the "you can only program if you're obsessive-compulsive and antisocial" theme. Even Berta, who starts off kind of normal, turns more and more antisocial when she starts learning how to program.

The biggest problem, for me, is that the bug that eludes them throughout the book just shouldn't have been that hard to fi
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Trish
Dec 02, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's an engrossing depiction of the early days of computer technology and computer start-ups -- similar to Plowing the Dark in the accuracy with which is captures the thought processes, foibles, and lifestyles of those we call geeks. The Bug focuses on two employees of a database start-up: Ethan Levin, a prickly programmer with a neurotic sense of inadequacy and a spiralling personal life, and Roberta Walton, a refugee from academia who first scorns and then embraces the arcana of the computer. ...more
David
Aug 12, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to David by: NY Times Book Review 15 June 2003
Shelves: read-fiction
I love novels that about life at an average workplace, because we spend so much of our time doing this but it is often ignored as a topic. This is a good novel but not a very cheerful one, because sometimes people and things go spinning out of control and all we can do is watch. This book is worth going out of your way to find and read.
Katie/Doing Dewey
Feb 25, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Summary: A thoughtful, beautifully written, character-driven meditation on programming and humanity.

"In 1984, at the dawn of the personal-computer era, Roberta Walton, a novice software tester at a Silicon Valley start-up, stumbles across a bug. She brings it to its inadvertent creator, Ethan Levin...But no matter how obsessively Ethan combs through the depths of the code, he can't find its cause... Meanwhile, the bug...shows itself only at the least opportune times and jeopardizes the fate of t
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Robin
Debugging: what an odd word. As if "bugging" were the job of putting in bugs, and debugging the task of removing them. But no. The job of putting in bugs is called programming. A programmer writes some code and inevitably makes the mistakes that result in the malfunctions called bugs. Then, for some period of time, normally longer than the time it takes to design and write the code in the first place, the programmer tries to remove the mistakes.

The Bug is an utterly absorbing tragedy in four act
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Sean Randall
Aug 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"a kind of obsessional energy that was nonetheless pleasingly addictive. As the examples and assignments became harder, I began making errors, having trouble getting code to compile, link, run. Yet this trouble only drew me in, created in me a fierce determination to get it working. I had never before built anything—not a tree house, not a soapbox racer; I’d never even been able to finish a woven pot holder. I was bad with my hands and I lived in my head, and for me there was only one way to bui ...more
M. L. Wilson
May 09, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Bug is the debut novel of writer and computer programmer, Ellen Ullman. The novel is a semi-autobiographical story which is based upon her years working as a programmer in for a company in California’s “Silicon Valley” in the 1980s. Ullman fleshes herself out in the novel through the character of Roberta Walton, a quality tester at a small software firm. It is through her discovery of the presence of a software syntax error—a bug—that breathes life into the novel.

Ullman does a fine job of se
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kat
Feb 18, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
okay i kind of rolled my eyes at the summary but this turned out to be a solid, engaging, philosophical horror story about a bug that destroys a programmer's life and i am here for it

developers will almost certainly enjoy this, and i may also try recommending it to less-technical friends who don't understand my job 😆
Holly
Sep 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012-reads
I was surprised (and pleased) at the extent to which Ullman presages Jaron Lanier. I cannot now recall if he mentions her in his writing, since I wasn't familiar with Ellen Ullman when I read You Are Not a Gadget nor with the New Yorker article. Just going to quote two nice passages near the end so that I can come back and read them later:
... there is the problem of crossing the chasm between human and machine "thought": some fundamental difference in the way humans and computers are designed to
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Martin McClellan
May 27, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ullman is an American treasure. So rarely do voices so unique and interesting emerge, and in her case only after a career in a field unrelated to writing, but related to this book: computer programming. This is not a page turner, although I certainly kept my interest. It is not a thriller, or a paint-by-numbers escalation into an expected exegesis.

This is a novel exploring the obsession and devotion it takes to hold a portion of a complex programming problem in your mind, and execute it. In thi
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Graham
Sep 01, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: programmers
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Katie
Jan 13, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
As a programmer I enjoyed reading about the weird little phenomena that I thought were experienced by just me, but that are actually common. Like the weird frequency with which I think of the answers to programming problems in the shower - I really thought that was just me! Also, how there are more left-handers among programmers than in the general population (I am one). It was also interesting reading about the debugging process articulated into words so well. Not sure how interesting this book ...more
April Sarah
Jan 08, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
It was a used book that some how grabbed my attention and demanded to be bought. It isn't my usual read but I found that I did enjoy it.

The writing style isn't that inviting, in fact it seems kind of impersonal at times, just like the coding it is telling about. That fact is both a plus and a minus in its favor.

The book left a deep impact on me after the end. It seemed like a story that could easily happen to anyone in the field of programming and it almost reads as if it could be a real life e
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Yoly
Dec 28, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As developers at some point in our profesional lives we are haunted by "the bug", not just A bug, but THE bug. It's that bug that makes no sense, that after hours of debugging you can never figure out but of course will always crash your application in front of a customer. This book is about a programmer and this type of bug.

I really liked the story. I think this book does a great job portraying how a programmer feels when trying to find THE bug. Based in the mid 80s, the book can get very ge
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James (Xiong Chiamiov) Pearson
As a programmer, I felt the emotion here - I know what it's like to be bothered day and night by a bug I just can't track down. But I also know there's a fairly simple solution that works most of the time: get a fresh set of eyes on the problem.

Often you don't even need to have another human involved (see rubber duck debugging). But when months and months pass, (view spoiler) - why on ear
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Lauren
Mar 30, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018-read
Ethan Levin is a programmer, responsible for the interface of new database software. This is 1984 and it's the first software of its kind where databases across a network are talking to each other. Many investors are involved in this company and pushing for this software to launch quickly. Berta is a QA tester and one day, by moving her mouse a fraction below an open menu, the entire program freezes. This is a critical level one bug and it happens to be from Ethan's code.

While Ethan tries to fi
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Irwan
Nov 23, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017, finished
The strength of the book is the accurate portrayal of computer programming: the mechanics, the typical problematics and the mental process of dealing with both of them. The description of the bug is also convincing as well as the more philosophical aspects like Conway's Game of Life.

However as a novel I feel that it falls short. I am not convinced with the main character Ethan Levin, his caricatural behaviour dealing with the bug and his personal tragedy. The others characters don't have any ap
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Laura
Mar 02, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019, ebook, female_author
I read Ullman's recent book, A Life in Code, and thought it would be interesting to read her novels. I thought this book would be amusing, a programmer obsessed with a bug, but I actually found it anxiety inducing. My heart literally started racing when the programmer accidentally deleted his days worth of work, and my own memories of bugs, that seemed to become personal, was a little too real. While parts of the book tended to drag, and the tester, Berta's voice seemed indistinguishable from Ul ...more
Ruth
Mar 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read Ullman's most recent memoir before reading her first novel, and thus I knew a lot of the life material she cannibalized to use in this book. It's definitely fiction, though--real life doesn't have a gripping pace of revealing its detail like this. It's also not quite this realistic. What I liked the best was the close-up look at the interior life of people who program. I got a little of this from Ullman's recent memoir that I just read. Reading it as fiction was oddly more satisfying. I l ...more
Jason
Feb 01, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting study of obsession among computer professionals and how a seemingly illogical element can ricochet through social situations and fracture relationships. I've written code for a long time and suffered a number of Jesters myself, so I know exactly where this is coming from. The characters and environment are caricatures somewhat of regular tech life (or I've been lucky), but there's no doubt this is a well written and engrossing work. I didn't want to put it down! Non technical read ...more
VENKATRAMAN C K
Wonderful combination philosophy , psychology and technology . Having grown up as a coder, the book resonates with me. The joy of creation of a program , the frustration of bugs and hyper competition for excellence all have been captured in a stark , the pressures of unrealistic deadlines and the resultant stress and tensions on personal lives are captured beautifully . The story is set in heady days of VC funding and chasing riches through Technology .

The book is dark and is real .
Miloslaw Smyk
Dec 24, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Programming is hard. Nothing says it better than a book about a software bug where the narrator botches the analysis of said bug once it is finally found (hint: this is off-by-two, not off-by-one situation).

Of course I am assuming this was intentional and not a mistake by the author.
Amy
Apr 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a book about computer programming and quality testing, but also failed relationships, and trying to find meaning. I also found this surprisingly compelling as we get to know Ethan Levin and Berta Walton - both smart and troubled in their own ways.
Bendystraw
The framing of the story was somewhat flat and contrived, hence the three stars. But the debugging journey was real, and the descent of the “protagonist” into the computer and away from the real world was realistically written. Uncomfortably so!
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Ellen Ullman is the author of By Blood, The Bug, a New York Times Notable Book and runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the cult classic memoir Close to the Machine, based on her years as a rare female computer programmer in the early years of the personal computer era. She lives in San Francisco.

http://us.macmillan.com/author/ellenu...
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“Debugging: what an odd word. As if "bugging" were the job of putting in bugs, and debugging the task of removing them. But no. The job of putting in bugs is called programming. A programmer writes some code and inevitably makes the mistakes that result in the malfunctions called bugs. Then, for some period of time, normally longer than the time it takes to design and write the code in the first place, the programmer tries to remove the mistakes.” 6 likes
“The machine seemed to understand time and space, but it didn’t, not as we do. We are analog, fluid, swimming in a flowing sea of events, where one moment contains the next, is the next, since the notion of “moment” itself is the illusion. The machine—it—is digital, and digital is the decision to forget the idea of the infinitely moving wave, and just take snapshots, convincing yourself that if you take enough pictures, it won’t matter that you’ve left out the flowing, continuous aspect of things. You take the mimic for the thing mimicked and say, Good enough. But now I knew that between one pixel and the next—no matter how densely together you packed them—the world still existed, down to the finest grain of the stuff of the universe. And no matter how frequently that mouse located itself, sample after sample, snapshot after snapshot—here, now here, now here—something was always happening between the here’s. The mouse was still moving—was somewhere, but where? It couldn’t say. Time, invisible, was slipping through its digital now’s.” 5 likes
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