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New Elon Musk biography reveals new details, sows controversy (book review)

Elon Musk (NASA Kennedy - CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ashlee Vance, the author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, has had unprecedented access to his subject, spending many hours in face-to-face interviews with Musk. He has also spoken with many of Musk’s family members, friends and business associates, and has crafted a comprehensive biography that’s replete with details of the man’s professional exploits and private life, including a few interesting stories that haven’t been previously reported.

Musk is a unique figure in several ways – the breadth of his talents is vast, and he has a rare combination of geeky technical skill and folksy charisma. However, what makes Musk a real-life superhero, as opposed to just another genius billionaire, is the fact that he isn’t in it for the money, or for personal glory. He truly is on a mission to change the world, helping mankind to save itself from environmental catastrophe, and to become a spacefaring race. This idea is beyond the grasp of many of the pundits who pontificate about Musk, but Vance understands it well, and it’s a theme that runs through his book. Vance presents a number of insights about how Musk’s upbringing shaped his lifelong quest, and why he has made the choices he’s made, repeatedly risking it all in order to attempt yet more heroic deeds.

Given that Vance has spent so much time speaking with Musk, you might fear that the book is a one-sided hagiography, but this is definitely not the case. On the contrary, Vance includes several uncomplimentary stories that cast Musk as an unfeeling, work-obsessed taskmaster.

Several of these tales have been disputed by others since the book’s publication, and Musk himself has stated that at least two of them are untrue or exaggerated. One former employee told Vance that Musk berated him for taking time off from work when his first child was born. Musk later tweeted: “It is total BS & hurtful to claim that I told a guy to miss his child’s birth just to attend a company meeting. I would never do that.”

One characterization of Musk that does ring true: he has little tolerance for being told that something “can’t be done.” If you’re going to tell a man who’s sent rockets into orbit, and built a blockbuster product out of something that all the world’s automakers wrote off long ago, that something is impossible, you must “take it down to the physics.” In other words, don’t dare to tell Musk that what he wants you to do is impossible unless you can demonstrate why the laws of physics make it impossible.

Another now-it-can-be-told story from the book, which received a tremendous amount of press coverage, is that problems with the Model S launch in 2013 almost bankrupted Tesla, and that Musk began to negotiate a deal with his friend Larry Page to sell the company to Google.

However, both companies refused to comment on the story, Larry Page called it a rumor, and Elon Musk said in an interview with Nikkei (via the Wall Street Journal) that Vance “overstated the situation. I did have very informal discussions with Google, but it never came to the point where Google made an offer. The [excerpt from Vance’s book] made it sound like they made a $6 billion offer for Tesla. That is not the case.”

Like far too many books these days, this one suffers from sloppy editing – typos, grammatical errors and examples of poor style will distract the analytically-minded reader. Vance definitely belongs to the “fewer footnotes are better” camp, but whether that’s a good or a bad choice is up to the reader to decide.

Despite these quibbles and controversies, overall I found this an informative, well-written and gripping read. The Tesla story is summarized in one fairly lengthy chapter, and Vance does not go into any technical detail (he believes that SpaceX is Musk’s true passion, and that Tesla is basically a sideline), but I’m confident that any EV enthusiast will find Mr. Musk’s life story well worth the price of admission. In fact, anyone interested in tech or the business world should enjoy this book, and its potential audience is bound to expand over the coming years, as the true scope of Musk’s contributions becomes clearer. Perhaps a century from now, colonials on Titan will be comparing Musk not so much to Henry Ford as to Christopher Columbus.


Image: NASA Kennedy – CC BY-SA 2.0

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