Book Report: The Bug by Ellen Ullman (2003)

Well, there it is. A novel about QA. Well, no, strike that, it’s a literary novel set in software development in the 1980s where a software defect is the MacGuffin and one of the main characters is a software tester.

Not by choice, oh, no. You can tell you’re reading a LITERARY book because the main character is clear to state that she has a doctorate in linguistics and only ends up working as a software tester when her academic career peters out. This is how you direct a book to an audience that does not work in the field the book covers, by saying ATTENTION! This character is the fish out of water and will explain to you the things you need to know because this character is just like you (in the field of academics or whoever reads Literary novels) except they work somewhere exotic (software development in the 1980s).

The book, as I mentioned, takes place at a database developer in 1984. They’re building a database from the ground up, including a GUI front end written from scratch that uses a mouse and everything. The main character, aforementioned, finds a defect that crashes the system, but is hard to replicate and appears to happen randomly, but usually in big demos. The book bounces back and forth between a first person double-effect narrator (since the story is told from present day ca. 2000ish after the dot.com bubble bursts, spurred when the narrator sees the one of the old screens still in use) and a limited omniscient narrator peering into the point of view of the developer to whom the defect is assigned.

The defect itself is a MacGuffin since the book deals mostly with the break-up of the tester’s and the developer’s personal relationship and the breakdown of the developer as he doesn’t think he’s a good developer and struggles to find this bug. That’s pretty much it. Enough technospeak and actual code and UNIX commands thrown into the mix, kind of like you’d find Hindi interspersed through a Kipling work to add authenticity. The tester finds self-actualization or empowerment by learning to code. The developer abruptly hangs himself, and even that did not cheer me. Uh, retroactive spoiler alert.

I didn’t care for it much, either for the plot nor the technical aptitude. The main characters are pathetic; I didn’t like either of them. The secondary characters are very, very stock and cardboard. The other testers are, essentially, the boss who is tough and fair minded and the other one whose dialogue mostly consists of her character tic of saying, “Meep.” The developers are mostly interchangeable except for their specialties, told to us of course. And I don’t know what the point of the frame story is, frankly. To show us the pathetic main character becomes rich but remains pathetic? Or to allow someone to feasibly set a book in 1984 when it’s written in 2002?

The best QA fiction is definitely genre fiction, mainly a thriller. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been written.

Books mentioned in this review: