Review: The Bug

The Bug: A NovelThe Bug: A Novel by Ellen Ullman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I stumbled upon a description of this book earlier in the year and added it to my reading list. Just a few weeks later, a friend who had read my book, Blue Screen of Death, said he enjoyed BSoD much more than The Bug, so naturally I moved it up to the top of my reading list.

Comparing them isn’t fair. Blue Screen of Death is a genre mystery. The Bug is a mainstream literary work, mostly a character study. Nevertheless, there were some striking similarities: both are narrated from the point of a young woman, both are set in a software company in Fremont, California, both start during an unusual heat wave, and both examine aspects of debugging—tracking down and fixing mistakes (bugs) in software.

But the similarities end there. At times, The Bug is almost like poetry, with beautifully crafted sentences and a rhythm that evokes the feeling of programming and of debugging. Ullman captures the fleeting elation when months of development finally pay off in some little way, and the utter despair of pounding your head against the same intermittent bug month after month after month. Ullman understands and conveys the emotional journey of software development at a level I never expected possible from a novel.

I loved the book. That said, I don’t know if it’s for everyone. It’s immersive. Deeply. Ullman explains the software terminlogy and concepts enough to understand—if you care to. If you don’t care to, you’ll quickly be lost, as the story hinges on abstractions and the mental labors of the characters. If she had written the same story about a field I’m not interested in—say auto mechanics—I’d probably have been bored to tears.

Conclusion: If you work in the software business, read it. If not, you might want to sample it before committing to the entire book.

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