The Ghost in the Machine

Ellen Ullman's 'The Bug'

by Diane Leach

2 May 2012

Ellen Ullman has the rare experience of having worked in computing while holding fast to what might be called old-fashioned values: a deep appreciation for the arts, the need for human contact, and the ability to write about it all in a gripping novel.
cover art

The Bug

Ellen Ullman

(Picador (reprint))
US: Feb 2012

“Everyone seems so happy with the world we technical people have created.”
—Roberta Walton, narrator

Roberta “Berta” Walton has returned to San Francisco from a trip to the Dominician Republic.  She hands her passport to the customs agent, waiting as he scans it through a computer database. 

The database is slow. As the customs agent attempts small talk, Walton, ex-computer programmer who made good and retired early, contemplates the time lost to waiting for computers to process: bank cards, credit cards, passports. She realizes this particular delay is courtesy of a Telligentsia Database, one she was deeply involved in creating. Suddenly she is back in 1984, working on the very database keeping her waiting in present moment.

In 1984, Walton had a Ph.D. in Linguistics and hoped for a career in academia. She became a program tester when her passion for meaningful linguistic structure was trumped by Postmodernism. Walton lands at Telligentsia courtesy of her supervisor, fellow academic expatriate and one-time Anthropologist Wallis Markham. Thus, Walton becomes part of the nascent computer boom, which will leave her wealthy enough to retire by age 48, able to travel, then wait in Customs for a database she helped design allow her back into the country. 

The Bug is Ellen Ullman’s first novel, released in 2003, reprinted to coincide with the recently released By Blood. Ullman, who was a computer programmer for 15 years, has the rare experience of having worked in computing while holding fast to what might be called old-fashioned values: a deep appreciation for the arts, the need for human contact, and the ability to write about it all in a gripping novel. The Bug takes us into the working culture of a computer company, with its panoply of weird personalities and their weirder computer creations, carefully parsing the floating line between human and machine. 

There’s Ute, the bisexual night administrater fond of Einstürzende Neubauten, Bradley Thorne, an aptly named software engineer who literally turns his back on coworkers who try speaking with him. Mara Margolies is a program tester given to regularly exclaiming “meep”!  And there’s Ethan Levin, one of Telligentsia’s star engineers, a brilliant, difficult man who defines the term “computer geek”.

Ullman writes with deep awareness of the ways software can entwine itself around an individual’s soul, until the person is unable to separate himself (and these isolated souls are mostly male) from the machine. She understands that the machine is not the penultimate, that the allure of a perfectly designed program cannot compensate for the messier rewards of human contact.  Nor does she forget that every program is designed by humans, thus subject to errors. 


The bug in Telligentsia’s database, formally named UI 1017, dubbed ‘Jester’ for its uncanny ability to appear at the worst times, will wreak havoc before the novel’s close. Jester will cost people jobs. Levin will lose his mind. And though Levin does it publicly, his insensitive colleagues jeer as his behavior grows more erratic. Only Walton, classically trained linguist and secret writer of poetry, will take more than passing notice. And even she does little more than watch.

The Bug begins with both Levin and Walton bading farewell to their respective lovers. Each has driven their beloved to the airport: Levin’s girfriend Joanna is off on a month-long trip to India with Paul Ostrick, husband of her good friend Marsha. Levin and Marsha cannot take time off to travel, and wave farewell, shoving the obvious from their minds. Levin’s relieved to see Joanna go: a month of freedom to work nonstop. Walton is not as pleased. Her boyfriend, James Havermeyer, leads a small chamber orchestra. His work requires frequent travel, less unsettling to Berta than his tendency to stray. 

Both Telligentsia employees are thus alone when Jester makes its first appearance, on Walton’s computer. Ullman is gifted at explaining code to lay readers, and her ability to make Jester a virtual character via lines of computer code demonstrates an unusual gift; go consult your camera or smartphone manual to fully appreciate Ullman’s capabilities. Walton is testing code when she innocently moves her mouse down the screen. Her computer freezes. She asks Mara Margolies to “kill” her. Margolies meeps. Walton creates the first report of U1017 and carries it to the dismissive Levin.

Despite being narrated from Walton’s point of view, The Bug belongs largely to Levin, a graduate-school dropout who started in Chemistry, only to discover Mathemetician John Horton Conway’s “Rules of the Game of Life”. (See The Game of Life.)

From “the heart of living molecules”, Ethan moves to computer programming, seeking life stripped to “something simple and clean”. He creates a computer ecosystem system mimicking Horton’s, returning to it throughout the novel. At Telligentsia, working under the famous hacker Harry Minor, Levin quickly develops a reputation for unfriendliness while always being on schedule, a virtually impossible demand foisted on programmers by company investors, who want their programs developed, perfected, and sold as quickly as possible. Computer bugs are a nusiance demanding immediate resolution.

It’s assumed U1017 was coded by Ethan, who sets to work trying to locate the trouble. Initially, he approaches it with trepidation: mice are unfamiliar to him.  ,He find them “impenetrable”.  ,This is astonishing until we recall (if we are old enough) that “mice” once only meant rodents. Ethan takes a computer manual to his shabby home in San Leandro, California, and spends a Joanna-less night trying to understand how a mouse relates to Jester. 

In addition to her skills at delineating computers, Ullman, an inhabitant of San Francisco, offers an excellent description of Northern California’s East Bay—that is, the area East of San Francisco, including Berkeley, where Joanna works, Fremont, where Ethan works, and their rented home in San Leandro, a community chosen by the couple for its relative proximity to their workplaces. Ethan and Joanna’s rented home is in what East Bay residents (I am one) call a “mixed” area: this means some of your neighbors are okay, while some are not. Ethan and Joanna live next door to a nasty biker fond of blaring rock music. This rouses Ethan’s ire and leads to an ugly conflict contributing to his downfall. 

As the days pass, pressures to resolve Jester mount. From just another annoying bug, Jester becomes anthropomorphic. Wary programmers refer to the bug as “you”. Blame is passed round, leading Markham to demand that Margolies and Walton learn computer programming. The women are parked in a conference room with a series of instructional videotapes. Margolies soon grows bored, but Walton is entranced. This keeper of secret journals and poems written in the night falls down the rabbit hole of programming: “For the first time, I understood there was a mapping between the symbolic words of the code and the physical existence of the machine. And something in me shifted.”

Daily life—the frightening increase in AIDS cases, Walter Mondale’s run for president, Foucault’s death—all fade into the background as control-flow, gotos, and “while loops” take over. When a friend exclaims over her obliviousness, Walton unwittingly shares a thought with Levin, her nemesis: “The cleanliness of programming was a balm.” Computer programs are not personal; either they are coded correctly, and execute accordingly, or do not.

Amid the beauty of code and Jester’s demands, both Joanna and Havermeyer depart. I give away nothing in saying both are sleeping with others, though Joanna has the better argument for doing so: Levin is oblivious to her. Always a self-absorbed, explosive, inconsiderate man, the Jester only exacerbates these qualities. Levin barely eats or sleeps, working constantly. His one friend, Bill Steghman, is Telligentsia’s finest engineer. Each day, the men share a silent lunch. Neither confides in the other what they see: alarming shifts in management, mass firings, numerous resignations.

Levin begins losing control. A company-assigned trip for “training” does more harm than good. In desperation, he turns to Walton, but there is no respite, no answer for the bug. 

The Bug’s climax is devastating, disastrous, a frightening indicator of what computers can do to us if we allow them. But we can take heart in work from writers like Ellen Ullman, whose many years in computing allowed her to create an Ethan Levin, yet emerge, if not unscathed, then wiser and able to warn the rest of us. Technology is a wondrous tool, not to be disparaged. But The Bug serves as a warning: we must all learn to balance the allure of the machine with the messy necessity of human contact.

The Bug



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