Notes on Writing: How I Built the Idea for the "Year 2038 Bug" Story

I am publishing the second chapter of my serial book, “Year 2038 Bug”, you can find it at the link included below. In this chapter, I introduce the character Jake, a software developer in San Jose. He and his roommate and coworker are monitoring servers for problems with the Year 2038 bug when things don’t go as expected.

While preparing this chapter for publishing, I thought I would include a note about how my writing process. For this section, I describe how I came up with the idea.  The idea started with a power outage we had in San Diego in 2011. A technician error caused the blackout and there was no power for anything for 300 miles. The event happened in the afternoon, around 3:30, so it had a big impact on rush hour.  Since no one could work, everyone headed home which meant freeways were packed. Cars stalled on the freeway due to running out of gas and it took hours for people to get home. Nothing worked, and people were trying to cope with no power for cash registers, pumping gas, water pumping and so many other things that we have in our modern life.

Fortunately, the power company was able to bring power back up that night after a huge effort on their part. San Diego is laid back so the power outage became a good reason for a giant beer and barbecue party for most people. However, when the power first went out it was scary. With no internet and cell phone problems, it was difficult to get information. There was a local station that had a generator and broadcast news but no one knew what was going on at that time.  Eventually the news filtered out but it was an anxious time while waiting.

At some point, I connected that event and a known bug for time keeping systems for Unix/Linux. The time is stored in milliseconds in those operating systems and is based on milliseconds passed since 1 January 1970. Since the space is limited in computer storage, at 03:14:07 UTC 19 January 2038, the clock would roll over to a negative number. The computer would then interpret the date as 13 December 1901 instead of 19 January 2038, which could cause a few problems in our modern world. Some software that works with future dates has already started to run into this problem.  As desktops move to 64 bit operating systems, this will be less of a problem, but it is likely that legacy systems will need to be fixed or upgraded in order to keep functioning properly in 2038. However, there is not a single fix for every system due to compatibility issues with old software and hardware.

With this connection, I thought about what might happen if someone knew about this problem and decided to take advantage of the upgrades to plant their own bug to cause catastrophic failures in all electronic devices. As I mulled that idea over for months, I started to picture the effect of this failure on different kinds of people. As this occurred in my head, could see scenes for these characters, how they might act. The first scene I saw is the first chapter, a young mom, with her toddler, grocery shopping when the power goes out. Deidre is meant to be an average person who will have to cope with a big problem.

Enough for now, I will make a note that next time I will provide some more information on how I am developing the characters. I hope you enjoy the second chapter. Year 2038 Bug, Chapter 2 - San Jose