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Book Review: ‘Elon Musk,’ by Walter Isaacson – The New York Times

Walter Isaacson’s biography of the billionaire entrepreneur depicts a mercurial “man-child” with grandiose ambitions and an ego to match.
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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.
It’s a convenient assessment, one that Isaacson seems mostly to accept. “As Shakespeare teaches us,” he writes, “all heroes have flaws, some tragic, some conquered, and those we cast as villains can be complex.” Well, yes — but couldn’t this describe anyone? What is there to say specifically about Musk himself?
For that we can turn to Isaacson’s reporting, of which there is plenty. (Another thoroughly reported biography, by Ashlee Vance, was published in 2015 — four years before SpaceX started launching Starlink satellites and seven years before Musk acquired Twitter.) Isaacson even managed to get Errol, Elon’s intermittently estranged father, to talk — though mostly what Errol offers are rambling bigoted comments (while insisting he isn’t racist) and self-aggrandizing tales (at least one of which turns out to be “provably false”).
Errol has two children with his stepdaughter. As for Elon, he has 10 children with three women, one of whom — Shivon Zilis, who bore his twins in 2021 — is an executive at one of his companies. (Another child, Musk’s first, born in 2002, died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome when he was 10 weeks old.)
“He really wants smart people to have kids,” Zilis said of Musk, who offered to be her sperm donor so that, Isaacson adds, “the kids would be genetically his.” At the time, Grimes and Musk were expecting their second child, a girl. Musk didn’t tell Grimes that he had just had twins with one of his employees.
But the details of such domestic intrigues are, in the book and in Musk’s life, largely beside the point. He is mostly preoccupied with his businesses, where he expects his staff to abide by “the algorithm,” his workplace creed, which commands them to “question every requirement” from a department, including “the legal department” and “the safety department”; and to “delete any part or process” they can. “Comradery is dangerous,” is one of the corollaries. So is this: “The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.”
Still, Musk has accrued enough power to dictate his own rules. In one of the book’s biggest scoops, Isaacson describes Musk secretly instructing his engineers to “turn off” Starlink satellite internet coverage to prevent Ukraine from launching a surprise drone attack on Russian forces in Crimea. (Isaacson has since posted on X that contrary to what he writes in the book, Musk didn’t shut down coverage but denied a request to extend the network’s range.) Musk decided that he was saving humanity from a nuclear war. When Ukraine’s vice prime minister texted him to say that Starlink service was “a matter of life and death,” Musk instructed him to “seek peace while you have the upper hand.”
Counseling the Ukrainians to “seek peace” sounds especially rich coming from someone who is “energized,” Isaacson says, by “dire threats.” But then the overall sense you get from this biography is that for all of Musk’s talk about the world-changing magic of “the algorithm,” he ultimately does what he wants. He will order his companies to scrimp fanatically on some things while insisting that they spend lavishly on others. At Tesla, Musk’s obsession with the minutiae of automotive design inflated costs and drained the company of cash. At SpaceX, instead of spending $1,500 for the kind of latch used by NASA, an engineer figured out how to modify a $30 latch intended for a bathroom stall. When Musk acquired Twitter last year, he eliminated 75 percent of the staff.
Since Musk’s acquisition, hate speech on the platform has proliferated while ad sales have plunged. Reading this book, one begins to wonder if the old bird-site will be Musk’s Waterloo. “He thought of it as a technology company,” Isaacson writes, “when in fact it was an advertising medium based on human emotions and relationships.” Isaacson believes that Musk wanted to buy Twitter because he had been so bullied as a kid and “now he could own the playground.” It’s an awkward metaphor, but that’s also what makes it perfect. Owning a playground won’t stop you from getting bullied. If you think about it, owning a playground won’t get you much of anything at all.
ELON MUSK | By Walter Isaacson | Illustrated | 670 pp. | Simon & Schuster | $35
Jennifer Szalai is the nonfiction book critic for The Times. More about Jennifer Szalai