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Book review: Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk biography portrays a driven but tough tech innovator

Elon Musk is a billionaire who wants to make space travel cheap. Saul Austerlitz examines a biography that details his tough childhood, his rise as a tech innovator and reputation as a bully.
Elon Muskwith a SpaceX capsule. He wants humans to colonise Mars. Markham Johnson / Bloomberg Markets
Elon Muskwith a SpaceX capsule. He wants humans to colonise Mars. Markham Johnson / Bloomberg Markets

Why did Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, published in 2011, connect so deeply with readers? To be sure, the inventor of the iPod and the iPhone had designed masterpieces of technological wizardry that had improved people’s lives. But more than that, Isaacson’s Jobs was a kind of deeply satisfying middle-class fantasy figure, a genius whose abilities placed him above the drab landscape of interpersonal morality.

When Jobs was brutal, or callous, he was acting in the service of a higher cause. He was cruel in order to be kind to the vast galaxy of Apple lovers hungry for the next bit of world-changing technology.

Isaacson was dogged in depicting Jobs’s personal failures while also crafting a compelling argument for Jobs as the pre-eminent inventor of his time.

Readers wanted to know more about the work involved in designing and introducing the iPhone, but they also wanted to learn what it might feel like to be above the petty fray of people’s feelings. Jobs was a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, as was the book, Steve Jobs, but Ashlee Vance’s thoroughly researched, thoughtful Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future has come along to provide the next serving of techno-utopian fantasia.

Musk, coming off an occasionally brutal South African childhood and an abortive stay at a doctoral programme at Stanford, was a traditional dot-com baby millionaire, rich from having been forcibly cashed out of his first two companies, PayPal and Zip2.

Where most Silicon Valley nouveau riches would be content to bask in the reflected glow of their money, Musk chose to invest his in a series of new, quixotic concerns: US$100 million (Dh367m) in SpaceX, a company working to overhaul Russian dominance of the commercial-rocketry market while planning for a future attempt to colonise Mars, and $70m in electric-car maker Tesla.

Musk boldly chose to invest the overwhelming majority of his resources into his companies, and Vance’s book is a compelling tick-tock of the ups and downs of SpaceX and Tesla over the last decade, both of which approached insolvency on numerous occasions.

SpaceX’s mission was to serve as “the Southwest Airlines of space”, drastically reducing the cost of space travel by building low-cost rockets. Engineers and machinists were to work together at SpaceX’s Los Angeles headquarters, and cost-saving would be the order of the day. If a part was too expensive, Musk would ask his engineers to design their own replacement.

The decline of the space programme had left American corporations thoroughly uncompetitive with their Russian counterparts. Bigger corporations like Boeing, fat on government contracts, had lost sight of the cost-saving possibilities: “They were building a Ferrari for every launch, when it was possible that a Honda Accord might do the trick.”

SpaceX was intent on making space travel cheap; Tesla wanted to make the electric car a luxury. The idea was to compete with Ferrari, not Honda. Musk spent as much time on the Tesla Model S interior (seating for seven, if you include two fold-down rear-facing seats in the back, and quality detailing on everything from the seats to the sun visor) as its specs.

A chronic overpromiser and under-deliverer, Musk ran into trouble with the media and customers by running chronically behind schedule. But as other electric-car start-ups (like Fisker, started by a former Tesla designer) rapidly flamed out, Musk’s attention to detail paid off: the Model S was the first electric car named Motor Trend magazine’s Car of the Year, and orders skyrocketed.

Vance has caught both of Musk’s companies in the spotlight, but their trajectories may not remain interlinked. SpaceX’s new Falcon 9 rocket has already completed 18 missions, including for Nasa, challenging the near-monopoly held on such flights by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Tesla, meanwhile, must still find a path to mainstream success, catering not only to early adopters in Silicon Valley and environmentalists but also middle-class mums looking for a slick but affordable ride. Given that, as Vance points out, the last successful American automotive start-up was Chrysler in 1925, the odds may still be against Tesla.

Musk’s two companies, as Vance hints, but does not quite spell out, also offer notably differing takes on the impact of climate change on the Earth. Tesla promises to undo the gas-guzzling excess of the car industry via clean technology, its early successes prompting dreams of an all-electric automobile fleet of the future.

SpaceX, meanwhile, has concentrated on commercial rocket technology in the hopes of eventually pivoting to the colonisation of Mars. Musk has set his sights on Mars, an interest since adolescence, because of deep-seated fears about the long-term viability of human habitation on Earth. One company hopes to use technology to fix the planet; the other is on a mission to use technology to one day escape it.

We need more Steve Jobs’s, undoubtedly, but my patience for Musk’s flagrant displays of bad behaviour wore thin over the course of the book. And while Vance does his level best to report both sides of the story, it is abundantly clear that he fell in journalistic love with his subject over the course of reporting and writing this book.

This, to me, is no sin; admiration is as worthwhile a quality for a journalist to muster as scepticism. It is insisting that Musk’s failings are actually his strengths that is troubling.

The interesting thing is not that Musk is a bully – he sounds like your average terrible boss whose bad behaviour is only tempered by his idealism – but that the tech-obsessed world seems to worship him in part for those very qualities. His boorishness is not a bug but a feature, proof positive of his being the Next Steve.

When they were married, his first wife Justine would seek to remind Musk that she was not his employee, and his response was succinct: “If you were my employee … I would fire you.” Compassion is in short order; witness the employee whose loyalty was questioned for having the temerity to take time off for his child’s birth, or his long-term assistant Mary Beth Brown, summarily fired after asking for a pay raise.

Perhaps I am guilty of missing the point, and a few bruised egos are a small price to pay for an oil-free future and a Martian adventure. 

Musk is, in Vance’s final estimation, an ubermensch, his experiences taking place at a level mere mortals cannot know: “His brand of quest is far more fantastic and consuming than anything most of us will ever experience.”

It is not enough for Vance, in considering Musk, to argue that he is someone whose wound is formed from the same tender flesh as his bow; instead, up must become down, and shabby insensitivity must become, as if by magic, a heretofore unique kind of compassion: “I would argue, however, that his brand of empathy is unique. He seems to feel for the human species as a whole without always wanting to consider the wants and needs of individuals. And it may well be the case that this is exactly the type of person it takes to make a freaking space Internet real.”

Elon Musk is a superlative innovator, and he may yet “change the course of human history in a massive way”, as Vance believes he has a chance to do. But what would happen if we, just for a change, celebrated people for their unyielding decency, and not for its absence?

Saul Austerlitz is a critic and commentator based in New York and a frequent contributor to The Review.

Updated: June 11, 2015 04:00 AM

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