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Book Note: Ellen Ullman, The Bug

I read this book about 20-Oct-2009. This is the first time I've read this book. The book is copyright 2003. This note was last modified Sunday, 25-Oct-2009 16:30:50 PDT.

This note contains spoilers for the book.


A strange book for me. As I recall what I knew before I read it, it was described as a mainstream novel set in the early GUI period of the software (pre-web). That's fairly accurate, in my opinion now that I've read it.

It's set largely at a small company doing a GUI front-end for a database, intended to sell to industry. The OS used is not mentioned, but they're writing a lot of the GUI themselves, as we see from some of the stack traces and such that we're shown. Some of the descriptions of programmers at work seem very accurate, and the description of the arts-and-letters graduate taking a testing job in desperation and eventually getting sucked on into engineering has a number of good points.

On the other hand, the characters are far more neurotic than the actual software people I know. They conform to the stereotypes of the literary genre in that regard. They're also rather more sexually active. Or maybe it's not more neurotic; maybe it's just neurotic in the wrong ways. Anyway, the internal character landscapes and external behaviors didn't largely ring true for me, and I've spent my life in this industry in various areas, from business programming to engineering jobs at DEC, Network Systems, and Sun.

The writing was certainly smooth and clean, easy to keep reading.

The story is largely the descent of Ethan Levin from imposter syndrome to suicide, by way of a failed relationship and schedule pressure at his job. He also drinks a lot of cheap bourbon along the way, and has confrontations with his neighbors in which he's treated as physically helpless. There's some hint that the "loud" music may not be loud at all, he may be hyper-sensitive by that point. Anyway—conventional mainstream issues, to my mind, not ones really fitting the character.

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David Dyer-Bennet