ELON MUSK, by Walter Isaacson
At various moments in “Elon Musk,” Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the world’s richest person, the author tries to make sense of the billionaire entrepreneur he has shadowed for two years — sitting in on meetings, getting a peek at emails and texts, engaging in “scores of interviews and late-night conversations.” Musk is a mercurial “man-child,” Isaacson writes, who was bullied relentlessly as a kid in South Africa until he grew big enough to beat up his bullies. Musk talks about having Asperger’s, which makes him “bad at picking up social cues.” As the people closest to him will attest, he lacks empathy — something that Isaacson describes as a “gene” that’s “hard-wired.”
Yet even as Musk struggles to relate to the actual humans around him, his plans for humanity are grand. “A fully reusable rocket is the difference between being a single-planet civilization and being a multiplanet one”: Musk would “maniacally” repeat this message to his staff at SpaceX, his spacecraft and satellite company, where every decision is motivated by his determination to get earthlings to Mars. He pushes employees at his companies — he now runs six, including X, the platform formerly known as Twitter — to slash costs and meet brutal deadlines because he needs to pour resources into the moonshot of colonizing space “before civilization crumbles.” Disaster could come from climate change, from declining birthrates, from artificial intelligence. Isaacson describes Musk stalking the factory floor of Tesla, his electric car company, issuing orders on the fly. “If I don’t make decisions,” Musk explained, “we die.”
By “we,” Musk presumably meant Tesla in that instance. But Musk likes to speak of his business interests in superhero terms, so it’s sometimes hard to be sure. Isaacson, whose previous biographical subjects include Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs, is a patient chronicler of obsession; in the case of Musk, he can occasionally seem too patient — a hazard for any biographer who is given extraordinary access. At one point, Isaacson asks why Musk is so offended by anything he deems politically correct, and Musk, as usual, has to dial it up to 11. “Unless the woke-mind virus, which is fundamentally anti-science, anti-merit and anti-human in general, is stopped,” he declares, “civilization will never become multiplanetary.” There are a number of curious assertions in that sentence, but it would have been nice if Isaacson had pushed him to answer a basic question: What on earth does any of it even mean?
Isaacson has ably conveyed that Musk doesn’t truly like pushback. Some of his lieutenants insist that he will eventually listen to reason, but Isaacson sees firsthand Musk’s habit of deriding as a saboteur or an idiot anyone who resists him. The musician Grimes, the mother of three of Musk’s children (the existence of the third, Techno Mechanicus, nicknamed Tau, has been kept private until now), calls his roiling anger “demon mode” — a mind-set that “causes a lot of chaos.” She also insists that it allows him to get stuff done.