When it comes to Elon Musk, it can be hard to separate the man from the myth. But in her new podcast The Evening Rocket, Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore manages to see through Musk’s mystique, explain his worldview, and decipher his visions of the future by going back to the sci-fi stories he grew up on—stories, Lepore says, that Musk sometimes misread.
This week, Lepore joins host Rufus Griscom on the Next Big Idea podcast. Listen to the full episode below, or read a few key highlights.
ELON MUSK IS A MARVEL CHARACTER . . . IN REAL LIFE.
Rufus Griscom: I’ve heard you say, Jill, that you are fantastically uninterested in biographies of the rich and famous. You were not even particularly interested in Elon Musk before this project came along. Having said that, Musk is an unusually interesting person, and it feels to me like we all, collectively, have a kind of love/hate relationship with him.
Jill Lepore: I don’t think I have a love/hate relationship with him. It’s hard to really reckon with him as a true human being. The character he plays on the internet is such a caricature of himself. I don’t think anyone who watches that really has much of a sense of Musk as a person. That’s part of the consequence of being a kind of Marvel character in real life.
SCIENCE FICTION ISN’T A USER’S GUIDE—BUT MUSK DOESN’T GET THAT.
Rufus: Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1971. Growing up, he was fascinated by comic books about space travel. He was an avid reader, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy became a kind of bible to him. And this book has an interesting relationship to the apartheid era in South Africa in which Musk grew up. You say, in your podcast, “There’s a weird way in which the culture of apartheid found expression in the 1990s in Silicon Valley’s vision of the future.” Can you unpack that a little?
Jill: I was fascinated, in working on this series, by how deeply Musk appears to feel about Hitchhiker’s Guide, and how often he uses it as a reference point. He wants to name the first spaceship to Mars after the spaceship in the story. But then I discovered that Douglas Adams was a pretty vocal opponent of apartheid, and the typewriter on which he typed the script for the Hitchhiker’s Guide radio series has a sticker on it that says “end apartheid.”