Josh Riedel’s “Report Your Bug Here” takes place in Silicon Valley in the early 2010s. Since the author was a very early Instagram contributor, and his debut novel, annotated by literary tech skeptics, is framed as a diary exposé, we’re ready for high-pitched satire. Yet this is not exactly the world we know.
Technology, first of all, is more advanced. Ethan, a recent art historian working on the new dating app DateDate, explains that one of the app’s best features is its “mood detection technology,” which uses “your phone’s camera, microphone, and accelerometer to understand your current mood.” “. In addition, there are “eternal churros that regenerate after every bite” and paintings that react to the viewer’s senses – so when a bewildered Ethan looks at one, it goes from “landscape mode to psychedelic swirls.”
In a world that is different from ours, one of the most effective ways a novel can lead the reader into its logic is through the reactions of the characters. When Ethan, our narrator, encounters these technological marvels, he doesn’t bat an eyelid. Giving credence to this alternate universe, the technology described doesn’t look particularly like the Jetsons – the flying cars and maid robots don’t. But when Ethan makes an accidental discovery while trying to fix bugs in the DateDate code, the established rules are broken, revealing (and possibly even creating) a glitch in the novel’s tone that never resolves on its own.
Here’s what I mean: the discovery that Ethan makes is that when he views a user that the dating app considers him to be the best match, Ethan is briefly transported to a strange realm, ambiguously referred to as “other worlds.” He stands “in a field of tall wet grass” under a sky “filled with birds” and hears the sound of nearby ocean waves before suddenly returning to his office. His boss asks if he’s okay, and Ethan plays the usual sci-fi act, pretending he’s okay because he can’t explain what just happened and because it’s convenient enough when he tries to explain it, he loses “all memory of what happened”. what happened, where did I go. Then he just goes back to work.
But it wasn’t that that confused me; rather, they were strange things that seemed strangely normal. DateDate, like many startups, is acquired by a corporation, an Apple-like company with an elaborate campus and endless resources, which turns out to be responsible for Ethan’s teleportation accident. To test a new product called Portals, “a stand-alone application that takes you to various vacation spots,” the corporation “uploaded experimental code to DateDate” before it bought it. Ethan’s “Underworld” is a mistake that the Corporation didn’t quite understand.
The release of Portals is highly anticipated – among beta testers Johnny Depp and Beyonce – and no one seems to be embarrassed by the invention of teleportation, not to mention that it’s much more Jetsonian than any other extrapolation of modern technology in the book. It takes some time for the National Security Service to intervene in the Portals, but even then this is only because a small part of the trips could be “undocumented”. Why isn’t this all seen as the monumental, world-changing development that it is?
This jaded reaction becomes even more confusing in light of the rest of the novel, which is firmly rooted in the real world. References to National’s lyrics, paintings by Matisse and Miro, two books by Adrienne Rich, and Lost in Translation by Sofia Coppola (Ethan stays at the Tokyo Hotel depicted there) all ground Ethan’s narrative in recognizable reality. This familiarity, bordering on the banal, is difficult to reconcile with technological magical realism.
If this sounds like nitpicking, it’s because it is. But in stories like this, the careful cultivation of a fictional world requires delicacy and nuance, and on such an unreliable path, the slightest stumble can lead to a big crash. Creating a believable setting—especially a semi-realistic one that is crucial to the story—is just as important to the success of a novel (and just as difficult) as creating compelling characters and interesting narratives.
In fact, teleportation is typical of the “Please report your bug here” problem. The story mechanic, in which a Lisbeth Salander-type character named Noma seeks out a little girl stranded in “other worlds,” inspires credibility in a similar way. How did the girl survive for so many years in this ephemeral no-place, which is vaguely characterized by either emptiness, or a personal inventory of memories, or another dimension? Like what did she do eat? And why doesn’t any of the characters, including the girl’s father, ask these questions, if only to let the reader know that such things were being considered?
The generous reader might be tempted to write this off as a by-product of satire that breaks the rules of believability in a way that hard science fiction can’t. But then the satirical elements are not sharp enough to justify it. The corporation is the same as all the giant conglomerates villainous in contemporary narratives, from Dave Eggers’ The Circle to Silicon Valley’s Hooli, WALL-E’s Buy n Large, and Severance’s Lumon Industries. The founder of DateDate is literally called the Founder (capital F), and that’s what everyone calls him, but there is a character who is only called engineer (lower e) – a blow, no doubt, to the technology hierarchy. , where only the top tier is considered as a proper name. But it also reduces these characters to tropes.
Riedel seeks to use these highly conceptual ideas to explore existential questions about identity, art, and technology, and there are times when his riffs on these topics are effective, even insightful. But novels are not much different from the complex part of programming: an incredible number of hidden components must work in concert to make seemingly simple functions possible, and, as Riedel’s debut shows, tiny bugs in code can ruin an entire enterprise.