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The Bug

3.69  ·  Rating details ·  728 ratings  ·  121 reviews
In 1984, at the dawn of the personal-computer era, novice software tester Roberta Walton stumbles across a bug. She brings it to its inadvertent creator, longtime programmer Ethan Levin, and the two embark on a hunt for the elusive bug, nicknamed “The Jester” for its tendency to appear randomly and only at the least opportune moments, jeopardizing the fate of the company. ...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published July 13th 2004 by Anchor (first published 2003)
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Average rating 3.69  · 
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 ·  728 ratings  ·  121 reviews

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Stephen Gallup
Aug 20, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
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
Nov 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Nov 17, 2015 rated it it was ok
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.

Marie desJardins
Apr 28, 2011 rated it it was ok
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
Gemma Williams
Jul 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a completely engrossing book. It's about a programmer and a tester at a software company and a bug that emerges in a programme and ruins the programmer's life. It's also witty, philosophical and wonderfully well written. I enjoyed it a huge amount and the fact that I don't know a lot about computers didn't hamper my enjoyment. One of the books I've enjoyed most this year. ...more
Feb 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This might sound like damning with faint praise, but this is easily the best novel I have ever read about programming, software development and QA. Ms. Ullman was a computer programmer for 20 years and it shows. There were very few technical mishaps and even those could be explained by, as she said in the afterword:

[blockquote]A certain degree of accuracy has therefore been sacrificed in the interest of making systems comprehensible and interesting to nontechnical readers. These inaccuracies do
Aug 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I was surprised at how captivating this book was, give it a go!
Nov 08, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
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
Aug 12, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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.
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
Sean Randall
Aug 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
"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
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
Feb 18, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2019
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 😆
Sep 25, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Jan 13, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Sep 01, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
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
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
Mar 30, 2018 rated it liked it
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
Greg Williams
Jun 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
A software engineer named Ethan Levin works in a Silicon Valley startup in the 80's. A software tester named Roberta Walton finds a bug in his code that is elusive. It shows up at the worst times (when demoing the product to customers) but they can never reproduce it reliably. As pressure mounts and deadlines approach, Ethan's life falls apart as he becomes more and more consumed by his pursuit of this bug. In the end, it destroys him. But in some ways, it brings redemption to Roberta's life as ...more
"...And even if you can achieve that mental openness, there is the problem of crossing the chasm between human and machine 'thought'...We're built to tell these stories to one another, and be understood. But the computer was built to do, to run. It doesn't care about being understood."

Ellen Ullman crosses that chasm, for me, better than any other writer. I think she's the writer I would most want to be compared to some day, in my daydreams.

But, that's only true if I look closely, if I see only
Ana María
Feb 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
"Puns, I would say, represented a human being’s pent-up need for ambiguity. That a word could signify two things at once! And these double meanings could be simultaneously understood! What a relief from the flat-line understanding of a programmer’s conversation with the machine! But as my time at Telligentsia progressed, I began to see something more sinister in the programmers’ penchant for puns. It wasn’t an upwelling of humanistic impulses in the face of the mute machine; it wasn’t a cry for ...more
Steve Alink
Nov 21, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I think it must be 30 odd years ago that I read a book with the title The Bug. From then to now, I had in my mind that it was a good book. I couldn't and still can't recall the content nor the writer, so had a go at this title from Ellen Ullman. And what a good choice did I make. I loved this book, that follows Ethans live for a large part and hands it over to Berta. The bug is about a bug in software and with my IT background I was able to understand the book pretty well. Ellen has done a great ...more
Nov 23, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: finished, 2017
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
Mar 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
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
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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.

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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.” 9 likes
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