“We’ve become a nation of indoor cats,” Dave Eggers wrote in “A Hologram for the King” (2012), his existential novel about an American doing IT work in the Saudi Arabian desert. “A nation of doubters, worriers, overthinkers.”
Ashlee Vance, in his new biography of celebrity industrialist Elon Musk, delivers a similar notion of the deflating American soul. An early Facebook engineer tells Vance, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”
If Silicon Valley was holding out for a hero after Steve Jobs’ death, a disrupter in chief, it has found a brawny one in Musk. This South African-born entrepreneur, inventor and engineer is the animating force behind companies (Telsa, SpaceX, SolarCity) that have made startling advances in non-indoor-cat arenas: electric cars, space exploration and solar energy. He is all of 43.
Musk is about as close as we have, circa 2015, to early industrial titans like Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Along with his swagger, he totes surprise, style and wit. Tesla’s Model S sedan was not only Motor Trend’s car of the year in 2013 — the first non-internal-combustion engine vehicle to win that award — but it also has a sound system that, in an homage to the film “Spinal Tap,” you can turn up to 11.
“Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” isn’t the first biography we’ve had of Musk, nor will it be the last. But it is easily the richest to date. It’s also the first one Musk has cooperated with, though he had no control, the author says, over its contents. Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek. He won over Musk, who initially declined to be interviewed, impressing him with his diligence after he had interviewed some 200 people.
The result is a book that is smart and light on its feet and possesses a crunchy thoroughness. Vance can occasionally veer toward hagiography and the diction of news releases. After noting that Musk’s grand vision is to colonize Mars, for example, Vance writes:
“He’s the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted. He’s less a CEO chasing riches than a general marshaling troops to secure victory. Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to … well … save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.”
Mostly, though, Vance curbs his enthusiasm and delivers a well-calibrated portrait of Musk, so that we comprehend both his friends and his enemies.
Bits from this biography have already made Internet gossip ripples. According to Vance, Musk berated a male employee who missed a Tesla event to be present for the birth of his child. (Musk has denied this.) Either way, he does not come off like Alan Alda. He has been married three times — twice to the same woman — and, while thinking about fitting a new relationship into his schedule, he asks: “How much time does a woman want a week? Maybe 10 hours?”
Other eye-popping details, not all of them previously reported, are flecked atop this book like sea salt. His five children don’t merely have nannies but have had a nanny manager. He worries that Google is building a fleet of robots that may accidentally destroy mankind.
Musk was born in 1971 and grew up in Pretoria, South Africa. His father was an engineer; his mother, whose family had roots in the United States and Canada, was a model and dietitian.
He attended college in Canada before graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and moving to the West Coast. His first startup, a company that provided maps and business directories, was bought by Compac Computer and made Musk $22 million.
His interest in online banking led to his part in the creation of PayPal. When it was sold to eBay, he walked away with roughly $250 million, the author says, enough to bankroll his interests in space and green technology.
Musk got started in space exploration by first learning all he could about it, sometimes reading Soviet-era rocket manuals. There were many failures and several near-bankruptcies along the way to making SpaceX what it is today, notably the only private company to have docked with the International Space Station.
Vance tells the stories of SpaceX and Tesla with intricacy and insight. We come less close to Musk himself. Though the author interviewed him for several dozen hours, he remains a remote and somewhat chilly figure, a perfectionist not unlike Jobs, often given to confrontation and fits of rage.
What does come through is a sense of legitimate wonder at what humans can accomplish when they aim high, and aim weird.
Dwight Garner, New York Times News Service
“Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” by Ashlee Vance (392 pages; Ecco; $28.99)