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HomeEntertainment‘Elon Musk’ by Walter Isaacson, reviewed

‘Elon Musk’ by Walter Isaacson, reviewed

If you were trying to reverse-engineer from Elon Musk’s life a blueprint for creating the sort of tech icon who, at 52 years old, merits a 688-page biography by Walter Isaacson, the resulting plans would be fairly straightforward — just rather hard to execute.

Take a bright, exceedingly headstrong, socially maladjusted young boy and forge his character in an abusive, friendless childhood. For solace, give him only science fiction novels, superhero comics and a cadre of younger siblings and cousins to boss around, imbuing him with delusions of grandeur and a taste for unchecked power.

If he survives that, send him to Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom. Give him a relentless work ethic, an addiction to risk and a moral compass that puts his own interests at its magnetic north pole. Add a keen eye for brilliant engineering minds he can mine for ideas and push to achieve the seemingly impossible, while he hogs the profits and credit. And then hope that he gets very lucky at pivotal moments along the way, so that his compulsive risk-taking doesn’t blow up in his face, even when his rockets do.

The traits that conspired to make Musk the world’s richest man were all in evidence when Isaacson decided in 2021 to make him the subject of his next biography. “Elon Musk,” being published on Tuesday, must have seemed a natural extension of Isaacson’s “great man” canon, which includes biographies of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs. (Isaacson’s subjects are almost, though not quite, all men.)

But Einstein, Franklin and Jobs were all dead by the time Isaacson’s biographies hit bookstores (albeit by just weeks in Jobs’s case), whereas Musk — CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and owner of X (formerly Twitter) — remains very alive. In the past two years, Musk’s public image has morphed from that of the hard-charging high-tech visionary who inspired Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark in “Iron Man” into something more polarizing and troubling.

How do you take the full measure of an increasingly troubled figure whose life’s work and legacy still hang in the balance? At stake is not just Musk’s place in history, but his place in the present and future. If Isaacson fails to pin that down in a satisfying way, it might be because Musk is such a fast-moving target, and Isaacson prioritized revealing anecdotes and behind-the-scenes reportage over a sophisticated critical lens.

Fortunately, the juicy details are plentiful, especially in the book’s final third, which covers the two especially volatile years Isaacson spent shadowing Musk. (There are wild capers and personal dramas worthy of a soap opera throughout, but most of the ones you’ll encounter earlier in the book have been well documented before now, including in Ashlee Vance’s thorough 2015 Musk biography.)

New details include that Musk single-handedly scuttled a Ukrainian sneak attack on a Russian naval fleet in Crimea (more on that below). We learn that Musk’s girlfriend Grimes was in an Austin hospital visiting a surrogate pregnant with their then-secret second child in 2021 at the same time Musk’s employee Shivon Zilis was in the same hospital pregnant with then-secret twins fathered by Musk via IVF, unbeknownst to Grimes. (“Perhaps it is no surprise,” Isaacson deadpans, “that Musk decided to fly west that Thanksgiving weekend to deal with the simpler issues of rocket engineering.”) And we discover that Musk and Grimes have a third, previously unreported child, named Techno Mechanicus Musk, bringing Musk’s tally of known offspring to 11.

This being an Isaacson biography, though, it’s clear he intends for “Elon Musk” to be more than a bunch of interesting stories about a controversial guy. He frames it as a character study, a quest to understand and perhaps reconcile the contradictions at Musk’s core. But the central question he sets out to answer in the book’s prologue feels a bit too easy. It’s the same one that lay at the heart of “Steve Jobs”: Are Musk’s personal demons and flaws also what make his spectacular achievements possible? Seven pages in, there are no prizes for guessing what Isaacson’s answer will be. Though the destination lacks suspense, the ride is entertaining enough, particularly for those who haven’t closely followed Musk’s high jinks. And despite the book’s length, it zips along thanks to Isaacson’s economical prose and short chapters.

Musk, who at age 5 traipsed solo across Pretoria to reach a cousin’s birthday party after his parents left him home as a punishment, has always had a little crazy in him. To help explain it, Isaacson introduces us early on to Elon’s brutal, “Jekyll-and-Hyde” father, Errol Musk. He’s a man Elon mostly despises, but also, in his worst moments, resembles. When Musk’s first wife, Justine, reached her wit’s end with him, she would warn: “You’re turning into your father.”

Elon’s childhood in South Africa reads like the origin story for a superhero, or maybe a supervillain, at least as he and his family members tell it. That may be by design: Musk has a penchant for self-mythologizing, casting himself as the sole hero of complex origin stories like that of Tesla’s founding.

Already, one of the book’s critical passages has sparked geopolitical drama — and an embarrassing public walk-back by Isaacson. In an excerpt from the book published in The Washington Post Friday, Isaacson recounts how Musk single-handedly foiled a Ukrainian sneak attack on a Russian naval fleet in Crimea by cutting off the Starlink satellite internet service Ukraine’s drones were relying on. Isaacson writes that Musk made the decision because he feared the attack could lead to nuclear war, based on his conversation weeks earlier with a Russian ambassador.

But when CNN obtained the excerpt and reported on it, Musk tweeted a different account. He said he didn’t cut Ukraine’s Starlink service in Crimea; it was already deactivated there, and he refused Ukraine’s emergency request to activate it so they could carry out the attack. Isaacson tweeted Friday that Musk’s version of the story was accurate, meaning the passage in his book is misleading.

The larger concern is whether Isaacson’s heavy reliance on Musk as a primary source throughout his reporting kept him too close to his subject. Swaths of the book are told largely through Musk’s eyes and those of his confidantes. And the majority of tales about his exploits cast him as the genius protagonist even as they expose his self-destructive tendencies or his capacity for cruelty.

To his credit, the book boasts a large number of citations for sources and interviews. Isaacson also takes care to include corroborating or conflicting accounts of controversial episodes, such as Musk’s vicious grudge against Tesla’s original founders. (If you ever want make an enemy for life, try standing between Musk and full credit for a project he was involved in.) And, contrary to some of his most adamant critics, Musk really does seem to possess a remarkable brain for physics, engineering and business — if perhaps not for running a social media firm. Isaacson persuasively dismisses the notion that Musk owes his success largely to inherited wealth, or that he’s a huckster profiting only from the inventions of others. Musk’s companies have thrived both because and in spite of him.

Isaacson at times interjects his own, sometimes dryly funny, counterpoints to some of Musk’s more outlandish claims. After he quotes Musk enthusing about his far-fetched Hyperloop plan, “This is going to change everything,” Isaacson begins the next paragraph: “It didn’t change everything.” (What it did change, by some reckonings, were California’s plans to build a high-speed rail line, which Musk has acknowledged he sought to undermine.)

In one of his most entertaining and revealing bits of original reporting, Isaacson fills in the backstory behind a series of technical glitches that plagued Twitter in late 2022 and early 2023, and it does not disappoint.

Read an excerpt from “Elon Musk” by Walter Isaacson

Steamrolling past Twitter employees’ warnings, Musk insisted on immediately moving thousands of the company’s computer servers from a Sacramento data center to another facility to save money. When they balked, insisting it would take months to do safely, Musk dragooned a carful of friends and family into canceling their Christmas plans to drive to Sacramento, where he personally disconnected one of the servers with the help of a security guard’s pocket knife. He then called in a team of employees to start loading the rest onto a semi truck and some moving vans.

On many occasions over the years, Musk has horrified deputies with these sorts of stunts, only to be vindicated when they pay off handsomely. But in this case it turned out the employees, whom he had threatened to fire for their timidity, had been right. The move caused cascading glitches in Twitter’s software, including the ones that afflicted a highly anticipated live audio event with presidential candidate Ron DeSantis the following May. *

The Musk we know today is a different one than the Musk who Isaacson began following in 2021. Since then, he has lurched rightward politically, embracing conspiracies and railing that the “woke mind virus” could unravel civilization; staged a dramatic takeover of Twitter, restoring banned accounts including Donald Trump’s while alienating advertisers and the mainstream media; been accused of sexual misdeeds and revealed as the secret father of multiple additional; founded a new AI company; and become a power broker in both the Ukraine war and Republican politics. And that’s leaving out a lot.

Isaacson pins the changes at least partly on the pandemic, which drew out Musk’s conspiratorial side, supercharged his Twitter addiction, and amped up his natural mistrust of bureaucratic regulations as covid-19 restrictions hampered Tesla production in California and China. In some ways, as Isaacson points out, Musk is becoming more like his father Errol, whom Isaacson has found in recent years to be descending into full-on paranoia, conspiracism and overt racism.

So what does Isaacson ultimately make of Elon? In a brief, final assessment, Isaacson takes us back to where he started. The tech tycoon’s “epic feats” don’t excuse his “bad behavior,” but “it’s important to understand how the strands are woven together, sometimes tightly.”

A harder, but more fruitful question than how to reconcile Musk’s idealism and remarkable achievements with his “demon mode,” as Grimes calls it, might have been: What does it say about our world today that so much depends on a man like Musk? That the fate of electric vehicles, self-driving cars, public infrastructure projects, global space exploration, the rules of online discourse, and the life and death of military combatants can be altered at the whim of a notoriously whimsical man? And if he ever does go full Errol, will there be anything we can do about it?

Simon & Schuster. 688 pp. $35

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