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Book Review: 'Elon Musk' offers a revealing but not surprising portrait of tech mogul

Biographer Walter Isaacson offers a revealing but not that surprising portrait of Elon Musk in his biography of the tech billionaire

Andrew Demillo
Tuesday 12 September 2023 19:53 BST

For those who have been paying attention to Elon Musk for at least the past couple years, Walter Isaacson's biography of the tech billionaire doesn't feel that surprising.

Isaacson's biography “Elon Musk” does a good job hammering home the portrayal of the SpaceX founder and now owner of X — formerly Twitter — as a visionary but mercurial figure who's given to mood swings and self-destructive behavior.

It's a familiar descriptor for Musk's fans and detractors, but Isaacson's biography still offers plenty of revealing details about the tech mogul.

In the opening pages of the book on Musk's childhood, he's described as someone “not hardwired to have empathy," a characteristic that comes into play throughout his work endeavors and personal life.

What Isaacson doesn't conclude is whether those characteristics are propelling Musk's success or undoing it.

The Musk biography is a fitting addition to Isaacson's works chronicling the lives of major figures in science and technology, including Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Jennifer Doudna and Steve Jobs.

As with those books, Isaacson deftly handles complicated matters like the development of electric vehicles, rockets and artificial intelligence while also deeply exploring Musk's background and family.

By shadowing the billionaire over two years and through interviews with Musk's family and colleagues, Isaacson is also able to show how Musk's risk-taking may work well in designing electric cars and rockets but hasn't fit well with running a social media platform.

Isaacson provides insight into how badly Musk misjudged his ability to run Twitter and the consequences of his missteps. He also offers his own theories on why the billionaire wanted to take over the social media platform. In part, Isaacson writes, it was a chance for someone who was beaten up on the playground as a kid to now own “the ultimate playground.”

The book has already made headlines, including Isaacson walking back his initial reporting in the book on Musk not allowing Ukraine to use Starlink internet services to launch a surprise attack on Russian forces in Crimea. Isaacson's book initially reported that Musk secretly told his engineers to turn off coverage within 100 kilometers of the Crimean coast as Ukraine was launching the attack. Isaacson has since posted on X the coverage hadn't been activated over Crimea.

The book has also gained attention for previously undisclosed details about Musk's family life. The news generated by Isaacson's book underscores just how much Musk's legacy remains in flux and the difficulty any biographer faces in assessing it.

But the most fascinating parts are early on, as Isaacson delves into Musk's upbringing, particularly his father. Musk's father is portrayed in the book as a conspiracy-minded, verbally abusive Jekyll-and-Hyde figure. Musk's fear that, as his mother puts it, “he might become his father,” is identified early on as a specter and possibly a driver of his success.

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