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Title: The Bug
Author: Ellen Ullman
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 0385508603
Pages: 355
Price: $23.95
Rating: 89%

What sort of personality does it take to be a professional computer programmer? And what happens when one of those personalities begins to unravel? That's the central theme of Ellen Ullman's The Bug, where Ethan Levin, a skilled and already neurotic programmer, begins to come apart after one of his code modules produces inconsistent errors.

In the programming world, there's no thing worse than a flaky error that doesn't occur regularly, can't be reproduced reliably, and therefore can't be fixed. One would think that programmers would run into these bugs less often than would hardware engineers (as in Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine), but in this case "The Jester", the name the programming and testing staff has taken to calling this bug, only pops up during important demos. You know, the times when the people with the money come around and want to see how things are going so they know whether to fire you or not.

It's in that milieu that we see Ethan in action and are gradually introduced to our narrator, Roberta Walton. Roberta is the quality assurance tech (program tester) who discovers the bug. As time goes by and the bug becomes ever more intractable, she studies programming herself so she can try to get a handle on the bug. Her natural curiosity and ability take her from the restless existence of an unemployed linguistics Ph.D. to someone who understands the inner workings of software sufficiently to solve the problem that threatens her company's existence.

Unlike many character studies, which focus on young artists or writers attempting to follow the path of true art in the face of the world's attempts to beat them down, The Bug is interesting because there's something at stake other than an individual's self-image or their artistic vision. The Jester is literally wreaking havoc on an entire company and the programmer who is ultimately responsible for fixing it. But at the same time we see Roberta progress from a neophyte to an accomplished programmer. As someone who came to the computer world (and have some experience programming) from a humanities degree, I perceive an implication that the perspective from someone who hasn't been drenched in programmer culture since adolescence will handle the environment's rigors more effectively, though I'm wary of it. The balance of excellence and dysfunction isn't absolute in real life, though it certainly makes for compelling fictional characters.

Curtis D. Frye ( is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews.  He is also the author of three online courses and thirteen books, including Microsoft Office Excel 2003 Step By Step and Privacy-Enhanced Business. He was formerly an analyst for The MITRE Corporation in McLean, Virginia.