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Journalist Walter Isaacson at his home in Washington, on Sept. 27, 2014. Isaacson's new biography of Elon Musk portrays the billionaire entrepreneur as a complex, tortured figure whose brilliance is often overshadowed by his inability to relate on a human level to the people around him.VANESSA VICK/The New York Times News Service

  • Title: Elon Musk
  • Author: Walter Isaacson
  • Genre: Biography
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Pages: 688

Elon Musk is on a mission to save humankind. He’s doing this by building electric cars that will make our planet more livable by cleaning its air, but also by building rockets that will allow us to leave it for Mars, where we will soon fulfill our destiny as a multiplanetary species. His other passions include cosplay, video games and having children (something he thinks we should all do, especially “smart people”).

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The Associated Press

Musk is a bit of a moody fellow. He can be goofy – you’d have to be to program fart sounds into your cars! – but when he’s in “demon mode” you’d best watch out, as there’s a high chance he’s going to scream and call you stupid. This moodiness may be due to his South African childhood, where he regularly had his face pummelled by school bullies, and his psyche pummelled by his cruel, volatile father, Errol, who had two children with his own step-daughter.

Elon does not want to be like Errol, but sometimes he is very much like Errol.

So might go the elevator summary of the latest instalment in Walter Isaacson’s series of biographies of significant men. Previous ones include Steve Jobs, to whom Musk, for obvious reasons, is often compared in this book, as well as Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Kissinger and Albert Einstein.

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Though Musk has a reputation for unpredictability, Isaacson’s book shows that he has in fact followed a very predictable pattern in building his billion- and trillion-dollar businesses, which, in case you’re new here on Earth, include Tesla, SpaceX, and Starlink. This involves combining big, bold thinking with non-stop cost-cutting, firings and regulation-flouting. Even, when necessary, the creation of artificial deadlines and crises. In truth, 688 pages of this can get a little numbing.

There are perils to this approach, as the recent Titan submersible disaster showed. Indeed, when Musk’s Falcon 1 rocket, made in an impossibly tight six-week schedule, was being transported by plane to Hawaii for a fourth attempt at a launch, its body apparently started “crumpling like a Coke can” during the plane’s descent.

The incident, mercifully, did not involve humans. Musk crushes those in other ways, by treating them like Giving Trees – or perhaps more appropriately given his love of the show, like Monty Python’s indomitable Black Knight, requiring that they offer up every metaphorical limb to carry out his vision.

Some, admittedly, thrive on his “hardcore” approach. Isaacson quotes multiple employees who, having initially found Musk’s demands outlandish, later conceded he was right, and that the ginned-up pressure brought out the best in them. (We hear less often from those who don’t feel that way.)

Isaacson’s writing is as ever plain and serviceable, with occasional lapses into awkwardness when he tries to get fancy. This includes the repeated, ill-fitting metaphor he uses to psychoanalyze Musk’s purchase of Twitter (now X); namely, that having been abused in playgrounds as a child, Musk turned the tables by buying, in Twitter, the “world’s ultimate playground.” The obvious issue here being that Twitter is to a playground what a sewage pipe is to a waterslide.

And the US$44-billion impulse buy didn’t stop the sand from getting kicked in his face. Far from it. Musk has been at the receiving end of far more mockery than he ever was before thanks to his disastrous running of the platform, as well as his continuing use of it, which has included touting easily debunked conspiracy theories.

Writing about a bull when he’s still in the china shop isn’t easy of course, and no doubt Isaacson and his publisher struggled with deciding when to stop. Anyone who follows Musk will find the contents of the book’s final chapters familiar, including the controversial use of his Starlink satellites in the war in Ukraine. Musk is in his early 50s, so the definitive account on his impact, the one that reveals his true Rosebud, has yet to be written.

But because both his laudable and scandalous achievements are so well known, it’s easy to pass those over and focus on the ironies in Musk’s behaviour. Like that he deeply resents current pronoun protocols, but has no problem saddling his children with names like X Æ A-12 (one of his three with Canadian musician Grimes). Or that he bought Twitter to make it a bastion of free speech, but often won’t tolerate criticism of himself on the platform.

With his employees, Musk gives no As for effort. Family is another matter. When his Marxist, trans daughter, Jenna, criticized his wealth, he reacted by selling off all his lavish homes. Sleeping under his many desks and on the couches of fellow billionaires failed, however, to mollify Jenna: She still won’t speak to him. (Musk’s recent embrace of the far right is, apparently, partly the result of his belief that Jenna was stolen from him by the woke left.)

But the greatest of these ironies is the one at the very core of Musk’s raison d’être. According to Isaacson, Musk’s greatest aim is the survival of human civilization. What “civilization” actually means to him is never quite explained. To wit, most great civilizations have embraced some degree of art and leisure – at least for some. Those, apparently, will not include Musk’s employees, whom he begrudges even the briefest of vacations.

His means-justifies-the-end approach at times feels closer to China’s communist Great Leap Forward than the hyper-capitalism with which he is associated. It’s a view of humanity, in other words, that disdains individual humans, of civilization that isn’t particularly civilized.

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