Like anybody I like a good book or movie, especially if they have the cool programmer guy who ends up saving the world and getting the girl at the same time. Unfortunately, most works of fiction, especially movies, are really bad at getting the details right. Or sometimes they are just laughably wrong.

So I ask: what books/movies/other media are both entertaining and get the details right, or at least not so wrong as to make it impossible to enjoy? Is there a tipping point? What tradeoffs are acceptable between Silicon Valley and Hollywood?

+6  A: 

Pham Nuwen in Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky is my ultimate Programmer Hero. The way it describes him searching through the ships systems to find old programs and turn them to new uses.

I also like the description of "archaeologist programmers" at the start of A Fire Upon the Deep.

Sam Hasler
+14  A: 

I always liked Hiro Protagonist from Snow Crash, i think its pretty accurate on the current world of massive worlds since it was published in 1992

Ólafur Waage
Snow Crash is a great book!
I cannot stress how good this book is. Instead of saying "ok this is the world and this is how things are", he instead outlines the rules by which the world operates, so that you can much more easily place yourself in it and understand the actions of the characters, and the consequences of each on your own.
+1  A: 

Hugh Jackman's character in Operation Swordfish...I always get challenged to code something in 30 seconds using five 60 inch monitors while someone is holding a gun to my head and...well you know what else was happening there.

Seriously though, I can't honestly think of a work of fiction that depicts programming accurately. To most people programming is uninteresting...little do they know what really goes on :D

Mike Brown

"Green Days in Brunei" - a short story by Bruce Sterling.

Adam Pierce
+16  A: 

Randy Waterhouse from Cryptnomicon. One of Neal Stephenson's best works.

Michael Petrotta
+1 I agree, and one hell of a book!
Cj Anderson
+9  A: 

24, Die Hard 4.0, that sort of stuff always makes me smile.

"They're downloading our firewalls! Quick, ping them with a trojan virus!"

"It's too late, they've reformatted all our CPUs!"

I LOLled and got goosebumps (the nails on chalkboard kind) at the same time.
that's hilarious +1
Oh No! They've clogged our internet tubes with lolcats!!
Good stuff. I always cringe and complain when I hear this sort of stuff in movies. I also hate the fake OS's they come up with. There is always someone downloading some critical data onto a cd or something while they nervously say, "Come on! Come on!"
Ronnie Overby
And they always beep and buzz, and blink "ACCESS DENIED" in fullscreen red letters...
+3  A: 

Rick Cook has a good set of fantasy books that greatly involve programming. They're very entertaining and handle programming challenges in a fantasy realm adroitly.

Bill James
thanks for the tip. I'll check out the books. :)
+3  A: 

I realised the visualisations in Hackers were nonsense, even at the time it was released, but somehow I can accept them much more willingly than the ones in Swordfish. I can't exactly put in to words why but Hackers seemed to have much more of a respect for programmers/hackers, even as it was dumbing down how it was presenting what they do. I feel similarly about Tron, nonsense, but you can suspend your disbelief.

I recall that the second Matrix movie had some realistic commands entered into a terminal that referenced an actual hackers tool. Firewall had what looked like a convincing rule change applied to the firewall at the beginning of the film.

Some other movies that had unconvincing (suspension of disbelief not necessarily requiring realism) visuals on computer displays :

  • Jurassic Park - "I know this, it's unix" with the flying through the file system visuals.
  • The Net - symbols on web pages leading to back doors, nonsense.
  • Sneakers - even though the film gets a lot right I couldn't believe the "descrambling" visuals.
Sam Hasler
"Hackers" was deliberately trying to be ridiculous and stylized. It's funny that you say it had more respect for hackers, because the point of the movie was to poke fun at the hacker subculture. Although maybe in doing so, it did pay them respect in a way...
Jurassic Park: that one always sticks in my craw, too.
Yeah, symbols on web pages never lead to back doors. '); DROP TABLE users;--
Don't forget Disclosure. The mainframe that had avatars of the users walking around in it with a picture of their face.
Mike Brown
Nitpick: Jurassic Park's file system visual is a real program: 3D File System Navigator for Irix. Which is what they used on the SGI boxes used to render the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Technically, it's still UNIX, but not that anyone who has ever used UNIX would recognize. Then again, the same applies to the custom program from the Jurassic Park book.
R. Bemrose
Details of the Matrix hack here: -- it's an exploit of an SSH vulnerability.
+3  A: 

You know... I always thought that William Gibson nailed the programmer mindset with the character Case in Neuromancer. No-one was really interested in anything other than the outcomes of his work, yet Case himself was so absorbed with hacking that he was emotionally scarred when he could no longer program.

Plus, I love the irony of Gibson's work being a primary cause of the whole cyber-punk movement. He wrote his books on typewriter because he couldn't stand computers!!

Greg Cottman
Neuromancer made me think computers were cool again
It wasn't because he couldn't stand computers, it was because he couldn't AFFORD computers. After he got a bit of money he bought one. He says he called the shop after starting it up and complained that it was making "a whirring noise". "That'll be your hard disk spinning" says the guy. Gibson was disappointed, having thought that it was just one huge block of RAM inside the case...
Gibson may not have known what he was talking about, but he kept things sufficiently abstract and futuristic that it really didn't matter.
David Thornley

Everyone here absolutely must read "Daemon" by Leinad Zeraus.

Matt Cruikshank
+3  A: 

There's a Robert Redford Movie called Sneakers that's about ethical hacking.

Geoff Snowman
but it does not get the details right
+1  A: 

I liked the protagonist from one of Orson Scott Card's lesser-known novels, "Lost Boys". Much of the story for the father deals with him trying to deal with moving his family across the country to a new job, and deal with bosses, hopes, dreams, and computer programming. It's a very good "slice of life" story that I identified with in many ways.

It's more of a realistic book than a high-action fantasy, and even though the programmer doesn't "save the world" and "get the girl", they do at least catch the bad guy in the end.

+8  A: 

It's non-fiction, but Tracy Kidder's "The Soul of a New Machine" is an excellent read just the same.

Sherm Pendley
Won the Pulitzer Prize, in fact.
Somehow related:
+7  A: 

I recommend Ellen Ullman's novel: "The Bug". It's about a developer who's personal life is falling apart, and who is becoming obsessed with a particularly mysterious and intermittent bug in a CAD system. The question is: is his personal life falling apart because he's obsessing about the bug, or is he obsessing about the bug to avoid dealing with his crumbling life. Not a cheery novel at all, but painfully insightful, and realistic in its portrayal of software development. Ms. Ullman is herself a programmer, and the bug tormenting the protagonist is based on one she encountered early in her career (source code and stack traces are included in the author's postscripts).

This sounds almost too realistic too be enjoyable =(
Logan Capaldo
LOL... Yes, the OP said "entertaining"
...but +1 for a very cogent summary.
+2  A: 

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland. A bunch of Microsoft programmers move to California and start their own company in the mid-nineties. In the process, they end up getting lives and finding love. Realistic, inspirational, and freakin' hilarious.

+2  A: 

Definitely Tron.

Every time I write code, I try to imagine the bits speeding around in lightcycles fighting the bugs for me. But for some reason the bugs always win. :(

+7  A: 

WarGames was a really good depiction of a hacker saving the world and getting the girl. Mathew Broderick's character was believable and the story and graphics weren't far fetched, even for the time.

I thought the details were pretty good.

  1. The computer used in the movie was the IMSAI 8080
  2. He used a dial up phone and cradle modem. Check out the scene here.
  3. He knew how to hack into things and get free long distance calls by phreaking
  4. Like most young kids he wasn't hacking out of malice, but intellectually curiosity.
...and get the details forgot that part.
+4  A: 

The Cuckoo's Egg is a true and very entertaining account of how Clifford Stoll tracked down a computer cracker who broke into LBL. It's an important treatise on the ethics of hacking, not to mention the excellent variety of historical anectdotes you'll find within the book's pages.

The book isn't fiction, but it's a good example of how you can make something very entertaining while sticking to the facts. Hollywood doesn't necessarily need to doctor up the hacker image as much as it does.

Good book, but sadly its not fiction... -1
Plus it contains a terrific cookie recipe. My wife and I make them all the time, and thanks to the source, we call them "Hacker Cookies". :)
Skinniest Man
+1  A: 

I would have to go with AntiTrust. I would say although a little far fetched, the overall idea of how large software corporations work is disturbingly true.

AntiTrust was a terrible movie.....
Michael Kniskern
I would agree with you that it shouldn't win any oscars, but I would say that the idea that some companies will go to "aquire" information isn't that far off. Really how many companies have we all worked for that suddenly get "new" ideas?
I'd agree it wasn't a great movie. I'd say it was an OK movie though, not *terrible*. And it did at least depict a few things realistically, as opposed to a lot of the other movies mentioned here. And it was fun to see (direct or hidden) mentions to McNealy and others.
+2  A: 

cryptonomicon isn't bad in the programming area.


Published in 1943, Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead captures well the creative spirit and work ethic that programmers will identify with. Even though it's about architects, the situations and the story's moral readily apply to programming.

+14  A: 

Two words: Office Space.


The team in Dopamine and to a lesser extent Hard Drive. I read the latter before I was a programmer, so it was more formative than accurate. I have a feeling I will come back in some months once I have finally watched Primer and add that in here but it's far down my list.

Matt Kane
+1  A: 

Not about a programmer, but is popular fiction among programmer types, I'm guessing it sorta plays to our mindsets:

The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Though it does talk about computers, like the one that came up with the answer to life, the universe, and everything: 42

Neil N
I find it hilarious that you felt it necessary to summarize Hitchhiker's Guide on a site for programmers.
Robert S.
+1  A: 

The Matrix Trilogy contained a lot of programming concepts.

Michael Kniskern

The Hacker and the Ants, 1994 by Rudy Rucker. Mr Rucker is a programmer and computer science professor. The hero is a programmer writing AI for virtual ants.

+1  A: 

The character of Colin Laney from Gibson's Bridge trilogy always struck me as a future-echo of what programmers will be one day. Hopefully with fewer axe-wielding australians.


I'd second Microserfs. The collection of bizarre dysfunctional characters chimes very nicely with what I've seen from nearly 30 years in this industry. Plus I also had a lego fixation for years :-)

Bob Moore
+1  A: 

How many of them are programmers rather than rack monkeys is debatable, but it'd be wrong not to make note of Cory Doctorow's When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth.


I like "The Net", "Office Space", and “Whiz Kids”, but the best answer IMHO is "War Games"