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Book review: 'Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future'

The book does an excellent job of not projecting Elon Musk as a corporate deity, like many biographies do inevitably.

twitter-logo Rajeev Dubey        Print Edition: September 27, 2015

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (By Ashlee Vance, PAGES: 400, PRICE: Rs 1,377, Ecco)
It's easy to get overawed by a man of many avatars like Elon Musk. However, US business technology writer Ashlee Vance has done an exceptional job of keeping his journalistic instincts alive and kicking right through the book by not projecting him as a corporate deity that many such biographies would do inevitably.

Instead, Vance who, like Musk, was born in South Africa, has made it a point to be irreverential: "? Musk can come off as shy and borderline awkward. His South African accent remains present but fading, and the charm of it is not enough to offset the halting nature of Musk's speech pattern. Like many an engineer or physicist, Musk will pause while fishing around for exact phrasing, and he'll often go rumbling down an esoteric, scientific rabbit hole without providing any helping hands or simplified explanations along the way."

There are many such examples right through the book. In fact, the project began with Musk shooting down Vance's offer to write the book. But Vance's dogged pursuit of his subject through people around him forced Musk to agree to the book.

An interesting aspect of the book is the suggestion - through Musk's deeds - that humanity was abandoning hard science (the kind that creates real products) for the soft Internet world in the manic hunt for easy money. Musk himself cashed out of his first two digital ventures (Zip2 to Compaq for $307 million in 1999 and PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002) to invest in space travel equipment maker SpaceX, electric car maker Tesla Motors and solar power champion SolarCity. If SpaceX succeeds, it would be a giant technological leap for the US versus rivals such as Russia and China. Musk says his family fears the "? Russians will assassinate me".

THE BOOK
does an excellent job of not projecting Elon Musk as a corporate deity, like many biographies do inevitably.

But that isn't Musk's only worry for humanity's sake. He is also concerned that Google co-founder Larry Page could be building self-learning robots which could destroy mankind. "He could produce something evil by accident," he tells Vance.

The book also takes a voyeuristic peek into Musk's personal life. It mentions the split with ex-wife Justine with whom he shares custody of their five boys, that he was teased for his peculiar surname in his childhood and that he isn't shy of abusing colleagues at work. All these, however, are aside from the greatest challenges to humanity he is trying to tackle - to colonise Mars through SpaceX, to eliminate use of fossil fuel through electric cars at Tesla and to generate solar power at SolarCity.

He was, in fact, fantasising about space even as a 13-year-old in 1984 when South African "PC and Office Technology" published the source code to a video game 'Blastar' Musk had written. The game's aim was to destroy an alien space freighter carrying deadly Hydrogen bombs.

Interestingly, as a child, Musk would often drift into a trance when he didn't hear anybody around. Doctors decided to remove his adenoid glands to improve his hearing. Obviously, it didn't work. Nor did his spaced-out ways help him make friends through his childhood. But as his college batch mate Navaid Farooq recollects, "I don't think he makes friends easily but he is very loyal to those he has."

And yet his pursuits of Mars, electric vehicles and solar power have grown the shy Musk's collective net worth to around $10 billion without chasing the Internet or the digital world.

But look at the flip side of the challenges to humanity that Musk is out to tackle: His critics still point out that he is out to build the rich boys' toys, after all.

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