The Bug by Ellen Ullman

I needed a U author for my Alphabet Reading Challenge. I didn’t have any U authors on my To Read lists, so it was down to “peruse the library shelves for something that looks interesting”. This sounded like a computer thriller and something different from what I’ve been reading lately, so I tried it.

Published: 2003

Genre: fiction

Length: 348 pages

Font: Adobe Garamond

Setting: it felt like California, definitely in the mid 1980s

Summary: The story is set in an up-and-coming computer company, Telligentsia. They were trying to create one of the first non-Macintosh graphic user interfaces for the computer. We focus on Berta, a Quality Assurance tester, and Ethan, a programmer with a background in computer science (just not GUIs, since they haven’t been invented yet). Ethan is driven in his programming because it is so ordered and precise, unlike the real world. His girlfriend goes off to India with a male friend, and ends up sleeping with the guy. Ethan barely notices she’s gone, as he concentrates on his programming. After she leaves him, he dives even deeper into his code and tries to block out all distractions (like noises). He’s trying to discover the cause of the bug the team has nicknamed the Jester. Berta was the first to note the bug and bring it to Ethan’s attention. In the quest to find the source of the bug, she learns how to program, and eventually moves into management. The difficulty of the bug was they couldn’t recreate it reliably. Ethan becomes so frustrated and depressed, he commits suicide.

Final thoughts: This was not quite the book I thought it was going to be. I was hoping for something like Neal Stephenson’s computer-based thriller Reamde, but instead got a fiction book set in a computer company. I did enjoy the “tech start-up/computers can do anything” feel to the book, but it certainly didn’t end on a happy note. Ethan started out a quirky programmer who could actually stay on schedule (mostly because he ignored everything and everyone when he was working on a problem until it was solved, much to the dismay of his girlfriend). Then, he came unglued and couldn’t handle any distractions. Eventually, he just gave up and committed suicide. There was almost a connection between him and Berta. His life simulations were almost enough to keep him going. Turns out, his life was a series of almosts. At least they did figure out and explain the cause of the bug by the end, or I would have been really mad.

Title comes from: The bug Berta found drove Ethan to suicide because he couldn’t find it or fix it

Reading challenges fulfilled: #93 in my Maybe 100 This Year Challenge, and a U in my Author Reading the Alphabet Challenge

If you’re interested in purchasing the book, you can click on the cover image to follow an Amazon affiliate link to the book and thanks for supporting my blog!


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