Review: Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance


Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future is a thorough and readable investigation of one of the most fascinating people of our time. Ashlee Vance reconstructs Musk’s rise to wealth and fame through hundreds of interviews with current and former business associates. This exhaustive research allows Vance to provide well-founded insights into Musk’s thinking, motivations, and behavioral patterns. While Vance touches on the major points of Musk’s personal life, the book avoids most of the armchair psychoanalysis so common in many biographies.

It’s worth nothing that Vance is a business journalist, so this book focuses heavily on Musk’s methods as a businessman. The book also delves further into SpaceX than I’d expected, which was a pleasant surprise. While Musk is probably most well-known as the head of Tesla, SpaceX best epitomizes his grandiose ambitions and manic work ethic. And, as a sci-fi author, it’s the company I’m most interested in.

Bottom line: If you are interested in Musk as a businessman, especially the story of SpaceX’s founding and his plans for that company, you’ll find this a worthwhile read.


The Magic Book to Make Your Minor Discomforts Vanish

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I’m writing this while tired. Very tired. We have a four-month old who still wakes up twice a night for feedings, and my nine-to-five job is actually a six-to-five. Once I’m home from that, I spend a few hours chasing around my four-year-old daughter, who expends enough energy in an hour to power the Vegas strip for a week. Then, after everyone’s asleep, I approach my keyboard with red eyes and a wrung-out mind.

And yet after reading Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, the sad violin I play for myself has gotten quite a bit smaller and quieter.

The book tells the story of English-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton’s failed crossing of Antarctica in 1914. The expedition went awry when his ship became trapped in a field of pack ice and crushed to pieces before his party could even reach land. Shackleton and his crew spent the next 500 days trying to survive the most hostile environment on Earth and trying to make their way back to civilization in three poorly equipped, 20-foot boats.

The punishment they endured was staggering, travails so severe that they would be laughed off as unbelievable if anyone survived them in a work of fiction. Months camping on ever-shrinking ice floes. A full year in frigid air and wet clothes. Weeks near starvation. Five sleepless days at sea, battling choppy water and dodging icebergs that threatened to sink their boats. Boils. Frostbite. Blisters that froze, forming pebbles of ice under their skin. Months eating little besides seal and penguin. A 720-mile journey across the world’s most dangerous seas in a glorified rowboat. Waves like skyscrapers. Bailing, watching, bailing, watching. Days of thirst without clean water. A full day rowing furiously against the current to avoid treacherous rocks. A traverse of a craggy, inhospitable island of stone and ice with nothing but a fifty-foot rope.

Endurance was published in 1959, so the language is somewhat antiquated in spots. However, Lansing’s prose is clean and crisp and tugs the reader along without speed bumps. This book was gripping throughout in a similar way as John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. But even the torments Krakauer’s Everest climbers suffered were far shorter in duration.

Endurance forced me to reflect on the human capacity to withstand suffering, both physical and mental. It gave me a new perspective on the unfathomable coziness we First Worlders are surrounded by every day. Climate-controlled dwellings. Running water. Warm clothing. Abundant, nutritious, inexpensive food.

This security and convenience has put much of our resilience into hibernation. We avoid the outdoors if it’s colder than 50 degrees or warmer than 90 degrees. We drive three blocks to buy groceries, instead of walking. We hire out physical chores whenever possible. But that strength is still there, untapped.

With that in mind, that knee I jammed the other day isn’t so sore anymore. The tightness in my wrists from constant typing seems trivial.

And, yeah, I’m still tired. But suddenly I don’t mind so much.

Five Writing Lessons I Learned From Hugh Howey’s Wool


I have a confession to make. Sometimes, when I’ve hit a rough patch in my writing, I watch Tony Robbins videos on YouTube for a boost.

I know that literary types like us aren’t supposed to like motivational types like Tony Robbins – because he’s rich and in better physical shape than us pale basement dwellers – but the guy dishes out some sound advice, even when he’s just pointing out things that should be obvious. One tactic he frequently recommends has stuck with me: If you want to succeed in a particular endeavor, find someone who’s already succeeded and copy what they did.

Because I want to become a popular science fiction author, and because the evidence suggests that self-publishing is the best way to achieve that, the obvious model for me is Hugh Howey.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of him, Howey is an independent author whose seventh published work, Wool, blew up into an international best-seller. He’s still writing while at the same time sailing around the world on his 50-foot catamaran. That’s not exactly the life I’m shooting for, but it’s not too far off the mark, either.

Helpfully, Howey has made modeling him easy by publishing a blog post called So You Want to Be a Writer, half of which is devoted to the craft of writing. That post, combined with a studious reading of Wool, serve as a solid crash course in how to create fiction that demands to be read.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Read widely and borrow from other genres. While Wool is ostensibly a dystopian science fiction novel, it’s also three romances and two mysteries. The romances raise the stakes on the action, and the mysteries serve as a propellant for the plot at times when mortal danger isn’t in the forefront.

Let your heroes have flaws. Wool’s major protagonist, Juliette, has refused to see her dad for years for reasons that I – as a father of two young girls – consider not to merit the torture of shunning a parent. But this fault springs from the same source as her heroic qualities, making both sides of her more believable.

Let your villains have virtues. The antagonist, Bernard, is doing what he thinks he needs to do in order to keep everyone in the silo alive. His resolve and his willingness to make difficult choices is admirable.

Suspense allows for intellectual depth. I used to think that suspense and intellectual heft were competing forces in fiction, that more of one meant less of the other. Wool destroyed this notion for me. Suspense makes the presentation of larger ideas more palatable. Passages in which characters are thinking deeply aren’t boring if they occur while they are in danger. This also lends veracity to the story. It’s natural that characters on a precipice would have racing thoughts and that they would engage big problems and concepts when they are at risk of losing everything.

Don’t be afraid to take risks or play with structure. Wool’s opening chapter about Holston and his wife would serve fine as a standalone short story. But it’s also an effective inciting incident for the rest of the novel. I can’t recall any other novel that starts that way, and it had me hooked from the beginning. Wool also employs some time-jumping and other devices that keep the story barreling forward.

Clearly, there’s a lot more to writing compelling fiction, but these are the lessons that hit home on my first pass through Wool. When you’re trying to accomplish something difficult, it helps to know that others have done it before. It helps even more when those people look back and shine a light on the path for you. So thanks, Hugh Howey.

And thanks, Tony Robbins.



Review: Lock In, by John Scalzi


In the near future, a highly contagious disease causes roughly 2 percent of the population to become prisoners in their own bodies. The U.S. government invests massive amounts of money to help victims of the illness, known as Haden’s syndrome, have normal lives, even without the control of their voluntary nervous systems.

Two options gain popularity. In one, Haden’s sufferers are able to use their minds to control robot bodies – called threeps – that allow them to move around and interact in the world. The other option lets Hadens control the body of another, specially trained human known as an integrator.

It is in this world that Chris Shane, a Haden’s victim who uses a robot body to get around, joins the FBI and on his first day is thrown into a bizarre murder mystery. The rest of the novel is essentially a science-fiction police procedural that’s infused with a snarky voice and sharp commentary about the intersection of industry and politics.

In short, John Scalzi’s Lock In is a fun, quick read that explores interesting ideas. Scalzi deftly weaves in critiques of broad swathes of the current political, economic and cultural environments, and my brain chewed on a lot of these issues between reading sessions. Even though this novel falls just short of full page-turner-hood, I’d highly recommend it to anyone who watches Washington and Wall Street with their head in their hands or to anyone who’s interested in biotechnology, the science of the brain, or the idea of transferred consciousness.

The following section is mainly for discussion with other people who have read the novel.

Some mild spoilers are below.

Here’s what I liked about Lock In:

The main character’s smart, wry sense of humor makes the story move briskly despite the often mind-bending forces at work. The supporting characters also have distinct, crisp voices that made spending time with them pleasant. The effect was similar to being at a party of smart, interesting people.

The scientific aspect of the story was fascinating. The idea of linking mind to machine has always intrigued me. Pushing the concept to the extreme of decoupling Haden’s sufferers’ minds from their bodies and gaming out the legal, cultural, and political dimensions of that separation gave me a lot to ponder.

The possibility of people inhabiting other bodies made the murder mystery setup of the story more interesting. I don’t watch detective shows or read many police procedurals, but the loophole that any given person might actually be someone else kept the act of piecing together this puzzle more enjoyable.

Here’s where Lock In fell short for me:

I never felt like Shane had much at stake. Early on, the main points of sympathy for him were that he was part of a group of that had been discriminated against and that he was starting a job that promised to be difficult. Given that he was a rich kid who didn’t need the job and that he was one of the most famous and privileged Hadens, I couldn’t generate a ton of empathy for him.

Also, the threat to his life didn’t develop until late in the book, and even then, the risk that he’d actually die seemed low. So for most of the novel, the main draw is whether he’ll solve the mystery and prove himself competent. That was intriguing, but I didn’t feel like anything bad would happen to him or to the world if he didn’t crack the case. As the case progresses, we see that there is more at stake, and the back half of the back is more compelling than the first half. So presenting the larger implications of the conspiracy earlier on might have added propulsion to the story.

To be sure, this is a mild criticism of a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. And I’m coming off of Hugh Howey’s Wool, which I found to be an addictive read, so my bar is temporarily higher than normal. I definitely recommend picking up Lock In.