Legend has it that when Elon Musk is asked how he got the idea to market electric cars and build rockets, the whimsical entrepreneur replies: “I read books.”
The anecdote, maintained by an Elon Musk guarantor of a myth which contributes to the growth of his bank account, has become a kind of epigraph on the stone of his technological empire. The good word of the richest man on the planet turns out to be less anecdotal than his brave side would suggest.
By founding the car manufacturer Tesla and becoming the herald of space exploration with SpaceX, the billionaire has shaped a multinational with futuristic overtones and all-powerful technology. Rockets, studies on life on Mars, cars of the future or brain implants… The most modernist projects pile up on the offices of his companies based in the United States. Elon Musk has set himself a mission: to build the future.
“Lulled by the science fiction books he’s been reading since childhood, he has a sincere, if somewhat wacky, aspiration: he wants to make real the fictional worlds of the novels he has devoured”, comments Olivier Lascar, author of a particularly well-informed biography on the character, Investigation of Elon Musk, the man who defies science.
“He considers that whatever is written can be achieved. In his eyes, there is no gap between fiction and the real world. adds Yannick Rumpala, specialist in science fiction literature and author of the article Elon Musk, a science fiction character? published in the columns of the weekly newspaper Le 1. Impregnated by the stories of SF from the 1960s to the 1990s, Elon Musk is the product of an imagination that he prolongs. It is this obsession for the perspectives offered by the fictional universe that pushed the teenager into entrepreneurship.
Asimov in orbit
Elon Musk’s youth was marked by loneliness. Brinquebalé between two parents turned towards personal aspirations where their child has a subordinate place, the teenager takes refuge in science fiction books. Between two software projects that he mounts on the big machines that fill his teenage room, he devours classics of fantasy literature like The Robot Cycle by Isaac Asimov. He will also pay tribute to the Soviet writer during the propulsion into orbit of his Falcon Heavy rocket, in 2018, which carried on board a crystal bearing the effigy of the Foundation Cyclea collection of short stories written by Asimov in the 1950s.
Elon Musk’s relationship to the world has been shaped by a myriad of books that he cites extensively during his conferences, media appearances or in front of his employees. “Among all the references that the boss of Tesla can cite, one keeps coming back: Iain M. Banks”, recalls Olivier Lascar. The Scottish writer who died in 2013, known for his florid descriptions and billed as one of science fiction literature’s greatest stylists, is the one Elon Musk told borrow several of his inventions. Among them, the neural lace.
In 2016, the whimsical entrepreneur hatched the project of creating a brain-computer interface that would allow the processor to be controlled just by the force of thoughts. It needs a catchy name to launch this great technological project. He opts for “neural lace”, a short, memorable and almost convenient formula. In fact, the term already exists. The concept too, straight out of the cycle of Culture by Iain M. Banks. “The parentage is obvious”, notes Yannick Rumpala. In the eyes of the South African, literature turns out to be a form of a great universe crossed by futuristic objects and technological programs which are waiting to be transposed into the real world.
Elon Musk built his visionary character by drawing from several authors. His geeky humor that he deploys on the social network Twitter recalls the tone of The Galactic Traveler’s Guide by Douglas Adams. The philosophy of his company is part of the heritage of Robert A. Heinlein, a work testament to the ideas of neoliberal capitalism. His aspiration to colonize the planet Mars is directly inspired by the theory of terraforming developed by Kim Stanley Robinson, father of The Martian Trilogy: Mars the Red; Mars the Green; Mars the Blue…
Elon Musk is a literary patchwork. A role made up of several influences. Science fiction is the key to understanding the personality of the powerful entrepreneur. He also pushed literary mysticism to the point of giving his children surnames of novel characters. Thus, the first name of his son, Siderael, is a reference to the character of Lord of the RingsGaladriel.
“His love for literature is not feigned, deciphers Olivier Lascar. It does not quote authors or wink at works of fiction for display purposes. It’s a legacy. Science fiction forged Musk’s imagination and gave birth to a belief in him: technology would have the keys to solving the problems of humanity.
Without his multiple references to works of science fiction, would Elon Musk have managed to raise so much enthusiasm around his avant-garde project? Would it have been intelligible? He is not a scientist but a captain of industry who had the inspiration to surround himself with experts in order to give substance to his aspirations. The tour de force achieved by the business magnate has always resided in his ability to have the economic and scientific circles adhere to his futuristic ambition. Literature and multiple references have contributed to this. “Elon Musk managed to play with imaginations, to build a story based on novels,” summarizes Yannick Rumpala.
Elon Musk is a storyteller… with his share of distortion. It is essential to point out all the omissions and misinterpretations in Elon Musk’s reading of many classics. Starting with his masters: Kim Stanley Robinson and Iain M. Banks.
Culture de Banks is a harshly harsh critique of capitalism and no scholar of the author would venture to build a bridge between the two personalities. “I think that Banks, being a utopian socialist and anarchist, would absolutely not have recognized himself in Musk’s capitalist and libertarian project”, moderates Yannick Rumpala.
There is no certainty either when discussing the filiation with the British Douglas Adams. The writer behind the saga of The Galactic Traveler’s Guide, constantly mocking the authority of the powerful, would no doubt have mocked the authoritarian captain of industry if a heart attack had not struck him down at the age of 49. He would also have had little taste for the idolatry maintained by the character Elon Musk.
Since the beginning of his technological adventure, Musk has staged himself, played on the figure he embodies. A process of heroization, again borrowed from literature. “I don’t know if he imagines himself as a hero of a novel, but Musk has a sense of representation. He is convinced of being someone apart.analyzes Olivier Lascar.
Long compared to the character of Manfred Macx, the inventor oscillating between idealism and pragmatism that the British writer Charles Stross depicts in his novel Accelerando released in 2005, Musk has rarely entered the stories of contemporary writers. In the cinema, the entrepreneur made a short appearance in Iron Man 2 and some see in Sir Peter Isherwell, the character of the film Don’t Look Upthe ghost of Telsa’s boss.
In view of his galloping power, making his slightest speech the regulator of the cryptocurrency markets, it is now Elon Musk who inspires science fiction himself, whether in books or on screen. And that was perhaps his biggest dream.