New Elon Musk biography as plodding and humourless as the man himself

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Elon Musk
Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, $45

Elon Musk’s favourite book is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. From it, he has derived “that we need to extend the scope of consciousness so that we are better able to ask the questions about the answer, which is the universe.”

It has altogether eluded Musk that Douglas Adams was taking the piss out of such thinking, speaking up for humanity against technocracy, and being funny with it. This is not surprising in Musk, whose humour is locked in at dorm room poo-and-fart level. But it also eludes Walter Isaacson, Musk’s massively self-serious biographer, as almost everything else does in these 670 pages of insight-free stenography.

Walter Isaacson’s Rosebud is that Musk was bullied by his monstrous father.Credit:

Nowadays, the expression “old-fashioned journalist” is commonly used as a term of approbation. Isaacson, a former editor-in-chief of Time in its heyday, is the worst kind: plodding, credulous, humourless, a leaden phrasemaker in thrall to direct quotation. In his book, people say things such as: “What began as a showstopper problem became a really fun blue-sky wacky brainstorming opportunity to say ‘wow this is actually a chance to do something unique’.” And Isaacson stands there with his dictaphone nodding and smiling.


Here’s how it goes. The plan, either at SpaceX, Tesla or now X (once known as Twitter), is … well, whatever. The engineers, almost exclusively men, say the plan will take six months; Musk says to do it in six days or everyone is fired.

Somehow it gets done, with a lot of blood and a bit of spit, or “working maniacally”, in Isaacson’s infelicitous formulation. Musk, it emerges, has an uncanny finger-tip feel for the properties of the materials he is working with and how designs can be simplified.

Mind you, you hardly need to be management theorist Peter Drucker to realise that this book is a prescription for aggressive management by others less gifted: “Demand the impossible and punish failure because that’s how Musk does it!” Meanwhile, women give birth, which in this book is pretty much all they do, as Musk has 10 children to three mothers.

Since a similar volume about Steve Jobs, Isaacson has become the unofficial scribe of modern American hyper capitalists, excusing their anti-social tendencies by invoking their greatness, and indulging a penchant for caffeinated descriptors that could have been rendered by AI.

Among Musk’s supporting cast are a “wry and literate Welsh-born former journalist”, a “240-volt Harvard graduate and venture seeker”, an “adventurous, rugged-faced German engineer”, “low-key and super-sharp Ukrainian software wizard”, a “low-key tech entrepreneur and jet pilot, who displayed the quiet humility of a square-jawed adventurer”, a “high-spirited and puckish New Orleans-born entrepreneur”, a “lanky Silicon Valley entrepreneur with a lean face and high-voltage personality”, and “a tightly bundled software entrepreneur, sports car enthusiast and survivalist who, behind his polished veneer, had a Musk-like intensity”.

Musk in 2014 with SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft.Credit:

Jeff Bezos is, doltishly, “the super-charged Amazon billionaire with a boisterous laugh and boyish enthusiasms”; Joe Rogan is, debatably, “a knowledgeable and sharp-witted pundit, comedian and … Ultimate Fighting Championship colour commentator”.

A particular Isaacson speciality is the pretentiously sharp-eyed distinction, such as with two of Musk’s creepier tech bro enablers: David Sacks is “an outspoken libertarian and free speech advocate” while Jason Calicanis is “a Brooklyn-born internet startup jockey and eager-beaver Musk sidekick” with “a boyish enthusiasm that contrasted with Sacks’ dour reticence”. Try this yourself with everyday objects: “The apple was red and crisp; the orange was also a fruit, but contrasted to the apple by its colour and softness.”

Isaacson’s Rosebud is that Musk was bullied by his monstrous father: “It’s one of the most resonant tropes in mythology. To what extent does the epic quest of the Star Wars hero require exorcising demons bequeathed by Darth Vader and wrestling with the dark side of the Force?”

He was also monstered at school: “As a kid, he was beaten and bullied on the playground, never having been endowed with the emotional dexterity needed to thrive on that rugged terrain … Now he can own the playground.”

Apart from being gassy, distended sentences, Isaacson completely misses Musk’s profound pessimism, how his living in the future and his yearning for space bespeak a horror at the present on Earth, his immersion in problems that don’t exist such as the challenge of going to Mars and saving us from “the drudgery of driving” rather than the myriad problems that do.

When Musk says that “humans are underrated”, it is an unironic observation of their facility in manufacturing in comparison with robots, not a commitment to mankind’s beneficiation. You get the sense it hardly matters to Musk if the world goes to hell because “the future is multi-planetary” anyway.

What does it say about our times that the world’s richest man has such an apocalyptic and misanthropic vision? Isaacson hasn’t a clue: at the very least he could have borrowed the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, which famously had “the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters.”

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