Do you think I’m insane? So begins Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk. Before I begin criticizing this stack of papers, I must ask you the same question: do you, dear reader, think I, Gabriel Roberts, am insane?
I want things to make sense, and I’m bothered when they don’t. For example, if somebody proclaims to hate garlic, and then, right before my eyes, eats a bowl of raw garlic, I would think to myself “that doesn’t make sense”. I would wonder why this individual claimed to hate garlic, and I would probably ask for an explanation: “I thought you hated garlic”, I might say.
Does this make me insane? Lately, my desire for things to make sense has not only felt crazy, it has been tried. Oh, how it has been tried! In movies, characters do things completely out of character just to bring about some desired outcome (like a nice burst of sex or violence or conflict). TV shows seem even more shoddily-constructed, with music, effects, and snappy editing taking the place of actual story-telling. Advertisements make me feel like a crazy person: “random” humor has become so popular that ad men actually strive for the incongruous and non-sensical. Worst of all, Wikipedia—seemingly the #1 source of information in the world—boasts articles that appear to be written by idiots, children, or robots.
We eat it up. We smile and repeat the nonsense we see on TV because it was on TV and all the bright lights were shining and it was said by a really famous person. We trust NPR and Wikipedia because we’re told that they are to be trusted. There’s no such thing as right or wrong, sense or nonsense. If you think something is wrong, you’re insensitive or uneducated. If you think something doesn’t make sense, you’re a conspiracy theorist.
I’m about to point out a whole lot of things that don’t make sense. These are things written down in a non-fiction book by a person who calls himself a “reporter” with “journalistic integrity”. I read them and allowed my brain to function and found them to be complete nonsense. Before you label me insane, here’s your chance to read the same things and allow your very own super-developed mass of brain tissue to function, and ask yourself the following oft-forgotten question: “does this make sense?”.
Chapter One: Elon’s World
The book begins with Vance’s account of a dinner meeting with Elon Musk, in which Musk grants Vance permission to become the first-ever reporter with access to his inner circle. Eighteen months before this meeting, Musk had told Vance that he would not grant said access: “I’d informed him of my plans to write a book about him, and he’d informed me of his plans not to cooperate”, writes Vance.
Vance carried on with his work on the book, interviewing “two hundred or so people”, before Elon contacted him again and offered to cooperate under the condition that he be allowed to write footnotes in Vance’s finished book. Apparently he realized that there was going to be a book, and “wanted a measure of control over his life’s story”. Vance isn’t keen on this idea, but they agree to “have dinner, chat all this out, and see where it left us”. This dinner is to be “a negotiation of sorts”.
Okay, so Elon Musk, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, doesn’t want a biography written about him (we aren’t told why, so we assume that he has something to hide, or that he is shy and doesn’t want the added attention). Ashlee Vance wants to write a biography of Elon Musk (we aren’t told why, so we assume that he finds Musk fascinating, or that he sees a book on the legendary man as an opportunity for great success, or both). They meet at a high-end seafood restaurant to hash out these opposing desires.
Things seem to go really well from the start: they chat about “Public Relations… mutual acquaintances, Howard Hughes, and the Tesla Factory”. Musk then opens up to Vance about the “major fear keeping him up at night”, which is that Google has built “a fleet of artificial-intelligence robots capable of destroying mankind”. Yikes! That is scary! But why, I wonder, is Musk “already dishing” to Vance? If his desire is to hide something or to maintain privacy, why, ten minutes into dinner, is he sharing his deepest fear with this reporter?
Finally, the conversation “drift(s) towards the book”, and Musk starts to “feel out” Vance, “probing exactly why it was that I wanted to write about him and calculating my intentions”. Let’s ignore the grammatically-incorrect phrase “probing why”, and read on with interest: why does Vance want to write about Musk? What are his intentions? Unfortunately, Vance doesn’t tell us. The next sentence reads:
“When the moment presented itself, I moved in and seized the conversation. Some adrenaline released and mixed with the gin, and I launched into what was meant to be a forty-five-minute sermon about all the reasons Musk should let me burrow deep into his life and do so while getting exactly none of the controls he wanted in return”. Wow! Ashlee Vance is a total badass! He’s jumping in and grabbing the bull by the horns! Whooooo!!
“The speech revolved around the inherent limitations of footnotes, Musk coming off like a control freak and my journalistic integrity being compromised”. Huh. That’s your big speech Vance? That’s how you convince Musk, one of the richest, smartest, most powerful men in the world, to allow you to dig deep into his personal life without offering him anything in return? You complain that footnotes are silly, tell him he’s coming off as a control freak, and accuse him of threatening your journalistic integrity? And then hammer these three points home for 45 minutes? How could he possibly resist?!?
Apparently, he could not, because, to Vance’s “great surprise” (I guess I’m not the only one who didn’t put too much faith in the success of his argument), “Musk cut me off after a couple of minutes and simply said, ‘Okay’”.
Wow! What?!? It worked? That worked? Oh wait, it wasn’t the genius of Vance’s three-pronged argument that convinced Elon: “One thing that Musk holds in the highest regard is resolve, and he respects people who continue on after being told no. Dozens of other journalists had asked him to help with a book before, but I’d been the only annoying asshole who continued on after Musk’s initial rejection, and he seemed to like that”.
Really? That’s all it took? Musk’s holdup over the biography—be it something to hide or a desire for privacy—was cast aside because he wanted to do this “asshole” a favor? I could see offering him a job, or even granting him an interview, but opening up your “inner circle”, that you have doggedly protected from “dozens” of other journalists, because you like this guy’s style? Are we supposed to believe that Elon got to where he is by caving to other people’s demands, or by giving up something he feels important just to make some random reporter’s day? Please. I don’t buy it for a second.
Sure enough, this is the explanation we are given for Vance’s unheard-of access to the great Elon Musk. In fact, the “negotiation” went so well for Vance, that Musk not only “granted me access to the executives at his companies, his friends, and his family”, but also “He would meet me for dinner once a month for as long as it took”. Wow!! Vance is some negotiator! A standing monthly dinner meeting with the busiest man in the world? In exchange for… nothing. Wow.
This is enough to make me disbelieve every bit of the ensuing biography—even if it were believable from here on out!
I want to pause here and let this sink in: the premise of the book is formed in this opening chapter. Vance is setting the stage. Before telling us the story of Elon Musk, he feels compelled to explain to us why he, of all people, is being given this incredible privilege. Unfortunately, he doesn’t take the time to craft a convincing story. This is important, Ashlee! Your whole book hinges on this explanation! We didn’t ask for it, by the way; you could have just gone ahead and started the tale. But you just couldn’t help yourself! You knew people might ask “why you?”, and for some reason, you don’t want to tell us! You don’t even want to tell us why you want to write this biography, let alone why you can! Instead we get this weird conversation that is supposed to explain why you got the job, but makes absolutely no sense. It’s just like a typical Hollywood movie:
The glamorous setting: “a high-end seafood restaurant in Silicon Valley”
The movie star: “Musk showed up wearing leather shoes, designer jeans…”
The plot: “His rejection stung but thrust me into dogged reporter mode. If I had to do this book without him, so be it”
The climax: “I seized the conversation… some adrenaline… mixed with the gin”
The comic relief: “Musk dug into a giant yellow cotton candy desert sculpture, ripping off handfuls of the sugary fluff”
The resolution: “It was settled. Musk would grant me access…”
And, just like a Hollywood movie, these desirable bits that score highly with focus groups are then loosely tied together by a team of morons or robots. We’re supposed to be eating our popcorn and chuckling at how Elon Musk “inhales” his food. We’re supposed to be shouting “Oh my god Elon Musk!” so loud that we can’t hear ourselves think.
I think Ashlee would’ve been much better off launching straight into the story (which, by the way, isn’t at all believable). At least that way the nonsense would slowly accumulate. Instead, he pulls back the curtain right from the start. Anybody with a shred of critical thought can tell that something doesn’t add up. It’s almost like he’s trying to make it an obvious fabrication. If he has a true story to tell, why aren’t we getting it? If he has to lie, why not come up with something more believable? It can’t be that hard! Start by telling us why you wanted to write this thing, and then give us a few stories of you meeting Musk and gradually forming a relationship. I assume that’s how real biographies of living people get written: the biographer forms a relationship with the famous person, the famous person decides they want a biography written about them, they ask the biographer to do it. Or, the biographer just does it. Vance wants us to think that’s impossible (dozens of other journalists gave up), but also tells us he spoke to two hundred or so of Musk’s friends and employees. Those can’t both be true! If you can get 200 interviews with Musk’s people, why the heck do you need his authorization? Two hundred interviews is obviously a bogus number, by the way. In eighteen months, that means you’re interviewing somebody every 2.7 days! After a year and a half of this, Musk finally decides to address the situation? He tells Vance “Things could go one of two ways: he could make my life very difficult or he could help with the project after all.”. What are you going to do, Elon? Suddenly decide, after “two hundred or so” of your people have talked to Vance, to shut the door on him? Or are you going to blow his car up or something? Seems like you’re about two hundred interviews too late, buddy.
Nothing about this setup makes a single bit of sense. I’m not buying Musk’s decision, Ashlee’s eighteen months of “dogged” reporting, a single line of their dialogue, or this ridiculous dinner meeting. If this seems like real life to you, I recommend watching less movies and spending more time interacting with real people. Perhaps the idea is to lead off with the most preposterous possible introduction: wrap the turd in pretty paper, see if we accept it, and then prance merrily onward with the absurd nonsense. With an opening like this, there is no limit to the absurdity nor the nonsense: we’ll believe anything!
Honestly, I don’t feel like I need to go on. I did, however, read the rest of Chapter One and some of Chapter Two, and there is just too much silliness for me to leave untouched.
The chapter goes on to give a brief overview of Elon’s World, and we are treated to a broad sampling of the complete nonsense that is to make up the remainder of the book. Here are just a few of my favorites:
Here’s what the SpaceX facility looks like, according to Vance:
“The factory was a giant, shared work area. Near the back were massive delivery bays that allowed for the arrival of hunks of metal which were transported to two-story-high welding machines. Over to one side were technicians in white coats making motherboards, radios, and other electronics. Other people were in a special, airtight glass chamber, building the capsules that rockets would take to the Space Station. Tattooed men in bandanas were blasting Van Halen and threading wires around rocket engines. There were completed bodies of rockets lined up one after the other ready to be placed on trucks. Still more rockets, in another part of the building, awaited coats of white paint. It was difficult to take in the entire factory at once.”
It was difficult for me to read that paragraph without screaming. That sounds like a five-year-old describing what he imagines the inside of a rocket factory to be. All that’s missing is a drawing of stick figures holding up a rocket ship, flames spurting out the back, some stars in the sky, and off to the side, Mom and Dad holding baby’s hand.
Mr. Vance, “one of the most prominent writers on technology today”, is granted access to the inside of the great SpaceX factory, and this is what we get? Descriptions like “hunks of metal” and “in another part of the building”? What a joke.
Thanks, Ashlee, for sparing us the technical mumbo-jumbo. Like most Americans, I’m a complete idiot, and would totally freak out if I had to read specific names of alloys that are used to make rockets. “Hunks of metal” works fine for me.
I do have a few questions though: why are the “welding machines” two-stories high? Are the rockets assembled standing up straight? I doubt it. And don’t they stand more than two stories high anyway?
Next, we have the technicians in white lab coats making radios, motherboards, etc. That sounds like a super fun craft table! If we are to believe SpaceX makes its own motherboards and radios (which I don’t), wouldn’t these processes take place in separate dedicated assembly lines, and not jumbled together on a table like a scrapbooking party? Absurd nonsense.
Then we have the special airtight glass chamber where they make the capsules. Is it a vacuum in there? Are the “people” wearing space suits? Why do the capsules need to be assembled in an air-tight container? And if they do, why don’t the rockets get the same treatment? If you’re going to make things up, Ashlee, couldn’t you at least make up an explanation?
How about the guys from “American Chopper” that are “threading wires around rockets”? I guess since we’ve seen this on TV, we need no explanation. We’re just happy to know that there are some good ol’ boys in there and that Elon doesn’t have a problem with tattoos. But again, thanks for sparing us the technical mumbo-jumbo. I get it: rockets need to have wires that go all the way around them!
We’re only seven pages in folks! Vance now starts to sprinkle in some details of Elon’s life, telling us about how incredibly busy he is running Tesla and SpaceX:
“He spends a couple of days working at Tesla, which has its offices in Palo Alto and factory in Fremont. Musk does not own a home in Northern California and ends up staying at the luxe Rosewood hotel or at friends’ houses. To arrange the stays with friends, Musk’s assistant will send an e-mail asking, ‘Room for one?’ and if the friend says ‘Yes,’ Musk turns up at the door late at night. Most often he stays in a guest room, but he’s also been known to crash on the couch after winding down with some video games.”
Okay. This is part of the plan to paint Elon as a cooky guy who does cooky things. I guess focus groups like their billionaire industrialists to have a childish and relatable side. What’s with the cryptic messaging system for overnight stays? Are people reading these emails and trying to figure out where Musk is staying so that they can assassinate him? Are we really buying that Elon has a little couch-surfing network in the bay area operated by his assistant? Friends that occasionally get the great Musk on their couch for a night? If you were a billionaire working 18-hour days, wouldn’t you rather just be driven to your hotel? Can’t the Rosewood arrange an X-box for Elon? What, are you trying to cut back on expenses? Why would you want to impose on friends by showing up late at night? It’s not like he’s having dinner and catching up.
Elon supposedly has five sons, two ex-wives, and is looking for love. But it’s hard because he’s so darn busy:
“I would like to allocate more time to dating, though. I need to find a girlfriend. That’s why I need to carve out just a little more time. I think maybe even another five to ten—how much time does a woman want a week? Maybe ten hours? That’s kind of the minimum? I don’t know.” Gee Elon, I guess I’ve never sat down and crunched the numbers on that one. What is it, exactly, that you’re looking for? Some pussy? With your massive wealth and celebrity status, that shouldn’t be too hard to find. Wait, no, you “need to find a girlfriend”, so presumably you’re after more than just sex. But you’re only looking to invest five to ten hours a week. What are you hoping for in return? A beard to mask your big gay face? A partner with whom to share the joys of life? Doesn’t sound like it.
This is just more nonsense to paint the picture of Elon the Relentless Entrepreneur who schedules every hour of his week. This is the model of success we’re all supposed to imitate: put your entire life into a bunch of tiny little boxes. Don’t leave any room for chance, for reflection, for feeling. Try to take over the world, one 18 hour work day at a time. But, obviously, you don’t want to look like a weirdo so get yourself a girlfriend or a boyfriend.
If Musk really does have five sons and two ex-wives and human emotions, you’d think he’d have learned maybe a thing or two about love and women. I guess not. I guess the smartest guy in the world has figured out that the secret to success is actually the compartmentalization of emotions. Shoot, it looks like I’ve had it all wrong! What a weak, sappy, hippy-dippy wishy-washy life I’ve been leading! Good thing I picked up this book!
Okay, so we know Musk is busy, calculating, and eccentric. Now for a little more “cooky”:
“On his thirtieth birthday, Musk rented out a castle in England for about twenty people. From 2am to 6am, they played a variation of hide-and-seek called sardines in which one person runs off and hides and everyone else looks for him.”
Yep, that’s an actual line from the book. That’s carefully constructed from over two hundred interviews with Musk and his people. He works hard but he plays hard too! That’s an epic sardines sesh, if I’ve ever seen one. Four hours?!? Even five-year-olds would tire of that game. Just in case you were feeling satisfied with your thirtieth birthday where you had a potluck at your place and felt surrounded with love: here’s what you should’ve been doing! You stupid weak asshole! This is how the real movers and shakers party: in a fucking castle with a game of hide and seek!
“Musk loves costume parties as well, and turned up at one dressed like a knight and using a parasol to duel a midget wearing a Darth Vader costume.”
Again, I’m not making this shit up. Ashlee Vance clearly is, but this is word-for-word written down in this New York Times-Bestselling biography. This is how people at the top get down! Your worthless Halloween party didn’t have any midgets, did it? You pathetic lame-oh. Maybe one day, if you suck enough dicks and log enough 60-hr. weeks, you’ll get to be there and witness Musk dueling a midget Darth Vader. Probably not, but obviously that would be the greatest moment of your life, so keep trying.
“Back at the castle, Musk donned a blindfold, got pushed up against a wall, and held balloons in each hand and another between his legs. The knife thrower then went to work. ‘I’d seen him before, but did worry that maybe he could have an off day,’ Musk said. ‘Still, I thought, he would maybe hit one gonad but not both.’”
Oh my dear god. Who pushed him up against the wall? Is this some sort of S&M thing? Are you trying to titillate us Ashlee? Musk has five hours/week for love, but time to go out and scout and hire knife-throwers for his birthday party? Wow, my priorities sure have been out of whack!
“One of the world’s top sumo wrestlers showed up at the party along with some of his compatriots. A ring had been set up at the castle, and Musk faced off against the champion. ‘He was three hundred and fifty pounds, and they were not jiggly pounds,’ Musk said. ‘I went full adrenaline rush and managed to lift the guy off the ground. He let me win the first round and then beat me. I think my back its still screwed up.’”
Were this unnamed sumo Wrestler and his “compatriots” prowling the streets of England one night looking for a good time, and then one of their friends texted them about Elon’s shindig? How convenient that a ring had already been set up! Musk faced off against the champion… of what? Was there a sumo competition? As usual, Ashlee’s having too much fun spinning yarns to try for continuity. Funny, every single sumo wrestler I’ve ever seen is quite jiggly. We understand that the muscles are very strong and large beneath the fat. Is this supposed to be a freak ultra-cut 350 lb Japanese man? Oh I’m sorry, I should stop asking questions and shove some more popcorn in my face. Wow, Elon’s a beast! I guess the Freak 350 lb. Japanese Sumo Champion was a fan of Elon’s and wanted to have some fun, that’s why he let him win. Understandable. I wonder if the midget is judging the match?
I’ll just drop two more “direct quotes” from Elon before wrapping this thing up:
“‘I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing Internet stuff, finance, and law,’ Musk said on the way. ‘That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation.’”
“My family fears that the Russians will assassinate me.”
Before I close, a reminder: this is a number one New York Times bestselling NON-FICTION biography of one of the most famous people in the world. This is not a children’s story. This is not a fringe self-published account. This is the “definitive look at the man who may have the biggest impact on the human race”, and is being touted as “intensely reported” and “stellar”.
The goal of this post was to demonstrate how riddled with nonsense this book is. Through Chapter One, there are a dozen accounts and scenarios that don’t make a bit of sense, and seem to be intentionally absurd. I don’t think I’ll go in to the reasons why I think this book exists or why the story of Elon Musk is so heavily promoted and so incredibly unbelievable. Musk and his absurd life’s story have already been eviscerated with more expertise than I can offer. I don’t want to throw any “conspiracy theories” out there for you to shoot down. Part of me would like to go on. If there was this much nonsense in Chapter One, imagine what the next three hundred and fifty odd pages will hold! But I tire of this game, and there are better things for me to spend my time on, like creating art, or eating cookies.
If you read those lines and find yourself explaining why they might make sense, or asking for more proof that this book is utter nonsense, then you obviously want to continue believing in Elon Musk. That’s okay. I don’t want to be the jerk that tells you Santa isn’t real. Like Santa Claus, Elon Musk is a wonderful character, and I understand wanting to believe in him. Elon Musk makes an ordinary life more bearable, because we know that he’s out there saving the world! We can all relax a little and not worry about the world going to shit, or try to do anything about it, because, again, smart people like Musk are working on the big issues and we should probably just sit tight and take another swig of kool aid and await further instruction.
I leave you with one question: if Elon and his story were real, why would this book make so little sense? Why would Vance make up so much nonsense? Aren’t true stories always better than fiction?