Let's talk about that new Elon Musk biography
We Review And Discuss Ashlee Vance's New Book
If all you care about is the history of Tesla Motors, as seen through the lens of Musk's influence, you only really need two of the book's 11 chapters. The first half of the book is about Musk's childhood and his early successes in Silicon Valley and then there are three that are mostly about SpaceX and one that focuses on SolarCity. While the Tesla chapters make more sense when you read the full book, we won't fault you if you just want to peruse those chapters while standing in the aisles of your favorite bookstore.
Author Ashlee Vance spends a lot of the intro making sure we know his personal connection to Musk. It is important to note that Musk allowed Vance into his life and his relationships in a way that no other biographer has yet managed. Vance interviewed people near and dear to Musk as well as disgruntled former employees who had some not-so-nice things to say. In the book's best chapter, Pain, Suffering, and Survival, we are taken on a detailed ride of the ups and downs of SpaceX's many failed launches. We also learn new information about how Tesla was almost sold to Google (page 305) and how Tesla learned new welding techniques from SpaceX (page 228), among a ton of other interesting details.
Despite spending what feels like the majority of the book on SpaceX, Vance puts Tesla up front in the book's subtitle. It feels like an acknowledgement that Vance knows that the company the reading public really cares about is the automaker, even if Musk himself is more driven by his Mars mission than he is to get people to stop driving on gasoline.
The dominant message in the book is that Musk is a difficult person to have as a boss. Plenty of individuals, named and anonymous, talk about his rudeness to his workers. And just as many say that his managerial style is exactly the thing that makes him and his companies work when so many others have failed. Since the beginning of his career, Musk has been happy to confront entrenched institutions and find improvement where others said they were not possible. When you put Musk's accomplishments in order, as Vance has done, you can't help but be impressed.
My major problem with the way Vance tells Musk's story is that Vance focuses almost too much on Musk. Sure, it's a biography, so of course there's going to be a lot in there about Musk himself. But no man is an island. While Vance does get into some detail about the culture of Silicon Valley (especially the venture capital crowd), he almost completely sidesteps the electric vehicle advocates that existed before Musk arrived. For Musk to be a leader in this movement, he needed people to lead, and they were not all Tesla employees. There is still a good book to be written about the passionate EV fans that helped push Tesla to where it is today, as well as the different kinds of successes that other automakers have had with their plug-in vehicles.
While the first Tesla chapter starts with a look at J.B. Straubel and not Musk, I would also have liked more about the people around Musk, and not just them talking about the main subject. Context is so vital to a story like this, and less focus on Musk's direct and uncomfortable tendencies as a leader of workers and more on the bigger, non-Musk picture would have been appreciated. My favorite line of the whole book, for example, is on page 136, where Vance describes the Kwakalein Atoll where SpaceX tested rockets. The atoll had been previously used by the US military to test the Star Wars program, and Vance writes that, "The military presence resulted in a weird array of buildings including hulking, windowless trapezoidal concrete structures clearly conceived by someone who deals with death for a living." I wanted more of that sort of background to be able to place Musk's missions into a deeper context.
Also, I'd wager a guess that the typos and factual errors I found in the published book bother Vance as an author as much as they bothered me as a reader. Musk himself called out one problem. In any case, we're about to kick off an experiment here, where I'm going to be hanging around in the Autoblog forum, on Twitter and Facebook for the next hour or so to see what you all think about the book. I'd love to hear your own review, if you've read it. If you have any specific questions, let me know. Let's talk.
If you want to buy the book, head on down to your local bookstore or visit Amazon or Audible.
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