The last twenty years have brought us the rise of the internet, the development of artificial intelligence, the ubiquity of once unimaginably powerful computers, and the thorough transformation of our economy and society. Through it all, Ellen Ullman lived and worked inside that rising culture of technology, and in Life in Code she tells the continuing story of the changes it wrought with a unique, expert perspective.
When Ellen Ullman moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s and went on to become a computer programmer, she was joining a small, idealistic, and almost exclusively male cadre that aspired to genuinely change the world. In 1997 Ullman wrote Close to the Machine, the now classic and still definitive account of life as a coder at the birth of what would be a sweeping technological, cultural, and financial revolution.
Twenty years later, the story Ullman recounts is neither one of unbridled triumph nor a nostalgic denial of progress. It is necessarily the story of digital technology’s loss of innocence as it entered the cultural mainstream, and it is a personal reckoning with all that has changed, and so much that hasn’t. Life in Code is an essential text toward our understanding of the last twenty years—and the next twenty.
Following the success of The Accidental Billionaires and Moneyball comes Console Wars—a mesmerizing, behind-the-scenes business thriller that chronicles how Sega, a small, scrappy gaming company led by an unlikely visionary and a team of rebels, took on the juggernaut Nintendo and revolutionized the video game industry.
In 1990, Nintendo had a virtual monopoly on the video game industry. Sega, on the other hand, was just a faltering arcade company with big aspirations and even bigger personalities. But that would all change with the arrival of Tom Kalinske, a man who knew nothing about videogames and everything about fighting uphill battles. His unconventional tactics, combined with the blood, sweat and bold ideas of his renegade employees, transformed Sega and eventually led to a ruthless David-and-Goliath showdown with rival Nintendo.
The battle was vicious, relentless, and highly profitable, eventually sparking a global corporate war that would be fought on several fronts: from living rooms and schoolyards to boardrooms and Congress. It was a once-in-a-lifetime, no-holds-barred conflict that pitted brother against brother, kid against adult, Sonic against Mario, and the US against Japan.
Based on over two hundred interviews with former Sega and Nintendo employees, Console Wars is the underdog tale of how Kalinske miraculously turned an industry punchline into a market leader. It’s the story of how a humble family man, with an extraordinary imagination and a gift for turning problems into competitive advantages, inspired a team of underdogs to slay a giant and, as a result, birth a $60 billion dollar industry.
Levy profiles the imaginative brainiacs who found clever and unorthodox solutions to computer engineering problems. They had a shared sense of values, known as "the hacker ethic," that still thrives today. Hackers captures a seminal period in recent history when underground activities blazed a trail for today's digital world, from MIT students finagling access to clunky computer-card machines to the DIY culture that spawned the Altair and the Apple II.
A Salon Best Book of the Year
In 1997, the computer was still a relatively new tool---a sleek and unforgiving machine that was beyond the grasp of most users. With intimate and unflinching detail, software engineer Ellen Ullman examines the strange ecstasy of being at the forefront of the predominantly male technological revolution, and the difficulty of translating the inherent messiness of human life into artful and efficient code. Close to the Machine is an elegant and revelatory mediation on the dawn of the digital era.
A PEN/Hemingway Award Finalist
A New York Times Book Review Notable Book
Ellen Ullman is a "rarity, a computer programmer with a poet's feeling for language" (Laura Miller, Salon). The Bug breaks new ground in literary fiction, offering us a deep look into the internal lives of people in the technical world. Set in a start-up company in 1984, this highly acclaimed first novel explores what happens when a baffling software flaw—a bug so teasing it is named "the Jester"—threatens the survival of the human beings who created it.
San Francisco in the 1970s. Free love has given way to radical feminism, psychedelic ecstasy to hard-edged gloom. The Zodiac Killer stalks the streets. A disgraced professor takes an office in a downtown tower to plot his return. But the walls are thin and he's distracted by voices from next door—his neighbor is a psychologist, and one of her patients dislikes the hum of the white-noise machine. And so he begins to hear about the patient's troubles with her female lover, her conflicts with her adoptive, avowedly WASP family, and her quest to track down her birth mother. The professor is not just absorbed but enraptured. And the further he is pulled into the patient's recounting of her dramas—and the most profound questions of her own identity—the more he needs the story to move forward. The patient's questions about her birth family have led her to a Catholic charity that trafficked freshly baptized orphans out of Germany after World War II. But confronted with this new self— "I have no idea what it means to say ‘I'm a Jew'"—the patient finds her search stalled. Armed with the few details he's gleaned, the professor takes up the quest and quickly finds the patient's mother in records from a German displaced-persons camp. But he can't let on that he's been eavesdropping, so he mocks up a reply from an adoption agency the patient has contacted and drops it in the mail. Through the wall, he hears how his dear patient is energized by the news, and so is he. He unearths more clues and invests more and more in this secret, fraught, triangular relationship: himself, the patient, and her therapist, who is herself German. His research leads them deep into the history of displaced-persons camps, of postwar Zionism, and—most troubling of all—of the Nazi Lebensborn program.
With ferocious intelligence and an enthralling, magnetic prose, Ellen Ullman weaves a dark and brilliant, intensely personal novel that feels as big and timeless as it is sharp and timely. It is an ambitious work that establishes her as a major writer.