THE LITERATURE of computer science is vast--and largely dreary, dominated by weighty textbooks and specialized monographs, some comprehensible only to their authors. Over the years, though, some writers have attempted to bring the alien world of computers to life for those of us who have suspected that "random access memory" could be a synonym for daydreaming.
And so computers have had their historians (Herman Goldstine, for instance, with The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann), popularizers (Jeremy Bernstein's excellent The Analytical Engine has recently been issued in a revised edition), and even a conscience: Joseph Weizenbaum's Computer Power and Human Reason.
Now, with The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder has found a new form altogether: a true-life adventure.
Kidder has created compelling entertainment, and much more, around an unlikely topic: the story of Data General Corporation's race to design and build the Eagle, a brand-new "32-bit supermini" computer, in the course of just a year and a half, a move precipitated by archrival Digital Equipment Corporation's introduction of its new VAX computer.
Into his well-paced story of corporate invention and intrigue Kidder weaves artful digressions on the history of computers; revelations of the backgrounds and feelings of some of the dozens of engineers who conceived and nurtured (and, inevitably, "debugged") the Eagle; and discussions of the impact of computers on society, among other topics. The most impressive passages are a dozen or so pungent explanations of technical matters and terms. Kidder makes learning the rudiments of how computers work almost a pleasure.
The adventure is too intricate to afford the sort of fully developed hero that might figure in a novel, but then Kidder was restrained by reality: a new machine of the complexity of the Eagle can have no one genius responsible for its design and successful operation. The computer itself (often anthropomorphized) is really Kidder's central character--and certainly the most enigmatic, particularly to the engineers who design and build it.
The closest Kidder gets to a human protagonist is Tom West, a veteran engineer at Data General's Massachusetts headquarters. Through sheer tenacity, West manages to secure the assignment to build the new computer, despite apparent reluctance on the part of Data General's bosses.
West finagles a colleague into designing the machine's "architecture," holds at bay a competing Data General lab in North Carolina that is designing a more elegant computer, and oversees the hiring and training of "The Hardy Boys" and "Microkids"--the young engineers, many fresh out of college, who work day and night to finish the hardware and coding for the machine on a schedule West knows is absurd.
His team assembled, West broods as almost 30 engineers design, build, and "debug" the computer they have wired together. The diagnostic process provides much of the book's tension. Even toward the end, the anxiety is palpable. Solving a particular problem fell to Ed Rasala, one of the chief engineers:
"Rasala felt stymied. There were too many possibilities, boundary crossings on top of block crossings on top of interrupts. 'It's some complex interaction of the IP, the ATU, Microsequencer and the IOC. And probably the ALU for that matter,' thought Rasala. In effect, he was thinking, 'It's the whole damn machine.'
"Four hours passed. . . . They suspected it was one of those time bombs, hidden far back in the diagnostic program, but they couldn't find it and they went home. The last big push ground to a halt."
Fortunately, almost as if he'd been a mystery writer revealing clues in an intricate thriller, Kidder has already given us enough background to understand those paragraphs. Not that he's made us experts. But we begin to share the engineers' constant fears that they may fail to create a machine that will really work.
Part of the story is of generational differences: the "old codger" engineers in their late thirties who studied the theory of computers in college but rarely had a chance to use one, versus the young engineers, entrusted with the chance to build a major commercial computer while only in their mid-twenties.
One of the youngest was Josh Rosen. He belonged, Kidder says, "to the generation for whom computers made up part of the scenery. He himself might have had block diagrams of ALUs encoded somewhere in his genes. Like practically everyone else on the team, he started becoming an engineer at about the age of four, picking on ordinary household items such as lamps and clocks and radios."
But Rosen, who had been the star engineer in another Data General division, found that working on the Eagle was not the best of times. "'Part of the fascination is just little boys who never grew up, playing with Erector sets. Engineers just don't lose that, and if you do lose it, you can't be an engineer anymore.'" All of a sudden, Rosen found he didn't care. He abandoned Eagle and left for a commune in Vermont--burned out at age 24.
For the most part, though, Tom West's decision to hire eager young men (and almost all the engineers on the project were men) turned out well. Commented one of his lieutenants: "'When this is all over, there are gonna be thirty inventors of the Eagle machine. Tom's letting them believe that they invented it. It's cheaper than money.'"
If The Soul of a New Machine had been a novel, the ending would have to be judged anticlimactic. But the penultimate chapters are riveting, even as we guess that the Eagle will work. Indeed, on April 29, 1980, Data General unveiled the Eagle, officially rechristened the Eclipse MV/8000--a name that meant nothing to the engineers who had created the machine.
Little of what Kidder writes is profound. Instead, he offers a fast, painless, enjoyable means to an initial understanding of computers, allowing us to begin to understand the complexity of machines we could only marvel at before, and to appreciate the skills of the people who create them. We can start to see why computers don't always work--and why they are often not easily fixed when they fail.
Throughout, the image remains of the machine as an enigma. The engineers have created a machine, fed it every wire, every chip, every instruction, and yet Eagle has aspects they are unable to fathom, even when it is almost finished. At one crucial point, Kidder asks:
"'Why is it working now, all of a sudden?'
"'We don't know,' said Rasala. 'We don't know everything about the machine.'"
Why, then, do the engineers labor over them, these machines that will be used in ways the men often ignore? Kidder provides one answer:
"Computers have been used in ways that are salutary, in ways that are dangerous, banal, and cruel, and in ways that seem harmless if a little silly. But what fun making them can be!"