Can Elon Musk save the hu­man race?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Me­gan McDonough is a wed­dings and obit­u­ary writer for The Washington Post. book­world@wash­post.com RE­VIEW BY ME­GAN MCDONOUGH

While other teens fo­cused on their im­me­di­ate fu­ture, Elon Musk wor­ried about the fu­ture of mankind. Ac­cord­ing to vet­eran tech jour­nal­ist Ashlee Vance, even as a teenager Musk saw “man’s fate in the uni­verse as a per­sonal obli­ga­tion.” “Maybe I read too many comics as a kid,” he told Vance. “In the comics, it al­ways seems like they’re try­ing to save the world.”

Of­ten com­pared to vi­sion­ar­ies Thomas Edi­son and Steve Jobs, the 44-year-old Musk has har­nessed, ex­panded and rev­o­lu­tion­ized the fields of elec­tric cars, space ex­plo­ration and so­lar energy. Based on ex­ten­sive re­search and in­ter­views with Musk, his col­leagues, friends and fam­ily, Vance’s au­tho­rized bi­og­ra­phy ex­am­ines the life and ca­reer of one of to­day’s most in­ter­est­ing and in­no­va­tive in­dus­tri­al­ists.

A book­ish, South African-born scifi fan, Musk taught him­self com­puter pro­gram­ming at 10 and sold his first prod­uct, a video game, at 12. Vance de­tails Musk’s trou­bled child­hood, in which he was sub­jected to emo­tional abuse by his fa­ther and phys­i­cal abuse by his class­mates. At 17, on his own with lit­tle money, Musk im­mi­grated to Canada. He lived off the kind­ness of ex­tended fam­ily and mea­ger earn­ings from odd jobs (clean­ing boil­ers and cut­ting wood), barely mak­ing ends meet. He at­tended col­lege in On­tario and later in the United States.

Af­ter col­lege, he went to Sil­i­con Val­ley, where he de­vel­oped and sold two dot-com busi­nesses: Zip2, an In­ter­net soft­ware sup­plier, and X.com, a fi­nan­cial ser­vices com­pany that grew into PayPal. As a re­sult, Musk be­came a mil­lion­aire in his late 20s. In­stead of bank­ing his prof­its, the wun­derkind rein­vested them in his next three en­tre­pre­neur­ial ven­tures: the first fully elec­tric sports car, Tesla; al­ter­na­tive energy, So­larCity; and low­cost, pri­vate space­craft, SpaceX (whose un­manned rocket, headed on a cargo mis­sion to the space sta­tion, ex­ploded June 28, shortly af­ter liftoff).

Vance de­picts Musk as am­bi­tious, pas­sion­ate, even ob­ses­sive. His re­lent­less pur­suit of his vi­sion and his un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions of oth­ers at times jeop­ar­dize his cred­i­bil­ity, health and per­sonal re­la­tion­ships. The au­thor ar­gues that Musk’s world­chang­ing vi­sion and un­com­pro­mis­ing ded­i­ca­tion both in­tim­i­date and in­spire his staff. “Some em­ploy­ees love him,” Vance writes. “Oth­ers loathe him but re­main oddly loyal out of re­spect for his drive and mis­sion.”

Musk’s eclec­tic, fu­tur­is­tic ideas know no bounds; he is cur­rently de­vel­op­ing re­us­able rock­ets, a high­speed transit sys­tem and space In­ter­net, with an ul­ti­mate goal of col­o­niz­ing Mars. “He’s the pos­sessed ge­nius on the grand­est quest any­one has ever con­cocted,” Vance writes. “Where Mark Zucker­berg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to . . . well . . . save the hu­man race from self-im­posed or ac­ci­den­tal an­ni­hi­la­tion.”

ELON MUSK Tesla, Space X, and the Quest for a Fan­tas­tic Fu­ture By Ashlee Vance Ecco. 382 pp. $28.99

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