A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post discussing the parallels between a certain character from The Tamboli Sequence of novels and the billionaire Elon Musk, trying to answer the question Is Raj Tamboli really Elon Musk?
That post is a little out of date now. Since then, I've relaunched and renamed the novels, with Integration becoming A Vision of Unity, for example. Musk has also gone and added even more parallels in the meantime, in particular the recent announcement of the Tesla Bot plans during their AI Day presentation, which was primarily aimed at recruitment – a fact missed by most reports.
I decided to refresh that blog post, expand it somewhat, and add a little personal perspective on Elon Musk – a complex individual who rarely engenders nuanced takes. So let me rephrase the question.
Was Raj Tamboli based on Elon Musk?
Short answer: No
Nuanced answer: No. Well, not really, but I see what you mean. OK, yes, I was aware of some similarities as I was writing it, but not all of them. But it's not him, OK?
Longer answer: Well, you did ask. Here goes...
The name of Tamboli is important throughout my novels A Vision of Unity, A Division of Order and A Revision of Reality. That's no great surprise, the trilogy is called The Tamboli Sequence, but it's the character of Raj Tamboli as portrayed in A Vision of Unity that's important here. Don't worry, I'll avoid any significant spoilers. Most of the details outlined here are revealed in the opening chapters, which you can read if you take a look at the Preview on this website.
A Multi-Planetary Humanity
Raj Tamboli is CTO of Tethys, the company that made his fortune as a lead player in a repurposed internet that evolved after the decline of post-truth democracies. He has a long-term vision for the company, and humanity, and invests in disparate areas of research at Tethys aimed towards realising these dreams.
One aspect of this is space exploration and cosmological research, which led to a fleet of generation starships and the first hints of a faster-than-light space drive, all part of his desire to ensure humanity survives no matter what happens to our cradle planet, Earth.
It's not hard to see the parallels with Elon Musk here. He's stated two overarching goals – to speed the transition to energy sustainability (think Tesla electric cars, solar panels, battery storage) and to make humanity multi-planetary (see SpaceX, particularly the Starship development).
This drive to make humanity a multi-planetary species was a deliberate parallel, and I was thinking of Musk directly when I included this in Raj Tamboli's goals. This is less important in the novel A Vision of Unity, but has more ramifications in the subsequent tales, A Division of Order and A Revision of Reality.
This was never a big deal though, more a background detail to the world and character, and nothing too critical to the story itself. I even put a small nod towards this at one point, when the desktop background of a computer known to have been used by Raj Tamboli showed an image of a Mars landscape.
There's one aspect that's critical to the story of A Vision of Unity – the direct neural connection between every human's brain and the online environment, the Stream.
I first used this (and Raj Tamboli) in my 2016 story, The Stream, which I later reworked into The Tamboli Sequence. That novel was a story that had been rattling around in my brain for twenty-five years or more before I had the chance to put it down onto paper. The internet had come and trampled over many of the ideas in the meantime, but the kernel was unchanged.
Ironically, when I first envisioned the character, Raj Tamboli was more inspired by Bill Gates back in his Microsoft days, but that soon changed.
It was only after I'd completed A Vision of Unity that I first came across another Elon Musk company, Neuralink, which is developing direct neural connections to computer interfaces using threads inserted into the brain, which sounds remarkably like the starting point for Raj Tamboli too.
That was definitely coincidental, and not a parallel I was anticipating.
Then we come to the topic that stimulated me to rework this blog post. In the opening chapters of A Vision of Unity, one of the areas of research listed in the presentation is that of humaniform robots (Raj doesn't like calling them androids). Indeed, later, Carole Cantor will see an uninspiring prototype for this.
Of course, this week at the Tesla AI Day, Elon Musk had to go and announce the Tesla Bot, the picture of which you can see above (although it's an actor in a suit at the moment). Of course he did. It's a long way off of even matching Raj Tamboli's uninspiring prototype, but it's another area where Musk's thought processes head in the same direction.
Naturally, this will take way longer than Musk predicts, and is likely to be underwhelming at first, but if there's one thing he's good at, it's ultimately delivering something. Here's my prediction: we'll see one of these Bots walking onto the surface of Mars from a Starship before we see a human. It's the perfect payload for the Mars Starship test flights.
That's always a good trick whenever one of Musk's companies announce something – work out how it fits into his plans for a Mars colony. I don't doubt that Tesla is really about climate change/energy sustainability on Earth, but there are Tesla batteries and engines on a SpaceX Starship. Solar panels? You need them on spaceships. The Boring Company? One of the quickest ways to radiation-proof a colony on Mars would be to start off underground.
Yes, I know that's hugely simplistic, but it's fun to speculate.
My personal thoughts on Elon Musk himself
I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Elon Musk, being both appalled and inspired on a regular basis.
In many ways, it's repugnant that one man can have that much money, but that's not unique to Musk, nor is it his fault. That needs a systemic change to fix. Unlike many others in his position though, I honestly believe that the money isn't the point for him – it's necessary for him to achieve his goals (whether you agree with them or not). A good indication of this is that he no longer owns a home but lives in a glorified prefab on the SpaceX site a lot of the time.
Should he pay more tax? Almost definitely. Yet, it's not up to him to fix the rules, and there's a counterbalance to this too. Take, for example, the NASA Europa Clipper mission. Originally it was mandated, thanks to the lobbying power of the older space industry, that it must use the NASA SLS launcher. Eventually it became clear that SLS wouldn't be ready in time, so it was put out to tender, which SpaceX won – at an estimated saving to the US taxpayer of $2 billion.
He's also risked everything on the way to his ridiculous fortune. He'd already earned enough from PayPal for a comfortable life. Setting up both SpaceX and Tesla around the same time stretched things to breaking point, and after three failed launches, a fourth would have been the end of SpaceX. I'd highly recommend Eric Berger's excellent book Liftoff, which covers the early days of SpaceX.
As a child of the Apollo moon landing era, I've been pretty inspired by the SpaceX Starship development. After the initial launch of the Space Shuttle, crewed spaceflight stagnated for decades, being restricted to low-Earth orbit. Then the US lost the capability to launch astronauts from its own soil for a decade, before SpaceX with its transformative Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule gave them the option again. Starship – if it works, and if the other players who can't compete (cough, Jeff "sub-orbital" Bezos, cough) don't drag it down on the courts – will transform the industry again and take us back to the moon and beyond.
In general, SpaceX has transformed the industry for the better already, opening up the market to other smaller launch providers and significantly reducing the cost to orbit. Starlink is interesting too, although it has problems of its own.
Then there's the argument, wouldn't the money be better spent fixing things here on Earth? This has always struck me as ridiculously simplistic. If the space program was immediately cancelled, do you really think governments would achieve anything with the money? And why target space (something that inspires many, stretches human knowledge and the yearning for new frontiers) when, for example, NASA's budget is only a tiny fraction of the US military budget? That's the sort of money that could really make a difference.
Those are the Musk pros for me, as is the impact Tesla has had on the transition to electric cars and other issues that could help mitigate climate change.
I'm less convinced where the AI, Bots, Neuralink stuff fits as yet, so it's something to keep an eye on. It did inspire me to write a short story recently though – The Muffler's Retrospective in my collection Mutterings of Consequence.
Cons for me? Well, he can be a total dick. Stupid statements like 'pedo guy' are just embarrassing, at best.
When he sticks to subjects he knows about, he can be inspiring. On other subjects, he can be actively dangerous, like some of the Covid misinformation he's ignorantly spouted. That's where he often appals me.
Given Musk's focus on energy sustainability, his blind support for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin always seemed to be a massive blindspot. Their energy budget, although improving, is ridiculous and at odds with his stated goals. He belatedly seems to have seen the light, losing some of his fans in the process, so he may turn out to be a force for good – but the jury's still out.
I could go on. He's a fascinating person to watch. I sat through the 2+ hour wandering interview he gave around his Starbase facility with Tim "Everyday Astronaut" Dodds recently, and thought it showed the good and bad of the man. He's on top of all the technical details, clearly drives the developments, and has a vision for how things should be done. You can see why SpaceX is such an innovative company.
I can also imagine he's challenging to work for. Inspiring, but only if you can take the pressure. I might have coped when I was unattached and younger but could imagine getting frustrated and demoralised. At least you know what you get with him.
I seem to be wandering off the point, if ever I had one. In summary, no Raj Tamboli is not Elon Musk. But... Raj Tamboli could be a bit of a dick too.
[Update 14th April 2022]
Over recent weeks, I'd say Musk has added much more to the negative column, culminating in his drive to reshape Twitter into a haven for free speech. At the time of writing, he's just made an offer to buy Twitter outright, which I fear, will be a disaster.
Most of the proponents of "free speech" usually mean free speech only for those who agree with them, especially if it allows them to freely resort to hate speech. Look at the ways minorities are routinely attacked, including by the UK government. Trans rights are merely the easiest target to start with.
If you've been paying attention to my novels and short stories, I regularly explore Karl Popper's Paradox of Tolerance:
The paradox of tolerance states that if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant.
This is often stated the other way around.
In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must retain the right to be intolerant of intolerance.
That obviously comes with its own problems, but I have used it as the basis of a couple of the smaller societies in my novels, usually when they are closed and struggling, such as Juno and Juventas. Things don't go well when people forget the dangers of unlimited free speech.
The Wikipedia article linked above has a useful summary. Michel Rosenfeld's statement resonates with me, particularly when we've seen Trump in the US try to overthrow a democratic election.
"it seems contradictory to extend freedom of speech to extremists who ... if successful, ruthlessly suppress the speech of those with whom they disagree."
If Musk gains control of Twitter, I'd be highly surprised if Trump wasn't immediately allowed back. Liberal democracies are already teetering on the edge, such as Le Pen making grounds in France, and a UK government where lies and lawbreaking are now commonplace, helped by working hand-in-hand with much of the free press who should be holding them to account.
This could prove to be the largest negative of all for Musk.
[Update 20th May 2022]
This could prove to be the largest negative of all for Musk.
Since my last update, the ticks in the negative column have been clocking up nicely with his increasing radicalisation towards unrestrained free speech. No great surprise that he's increasingly living in world of denial and false information in areas beyond his expertise.
The cognitive dissonance that must rattle his brain when he says he's voting Republican because of the left's policy of division and hatred. That was how Trump got elected! What he doesn't like is criticism, especially where justified and he doesn't have a cogent argument against it. So much for free speech.
That's not to say there aren't plenty on the left guilty of it too, but its dominance is definitely on the right, especially in the US. It's really a cover for the sex assault accusations that came out today.
Now we have to tread carefully here. There are those who would love to destroy Musk who'd be happy to do so with false allegations, or explode something minor into a big deal. Innocent until proven guilty, etc.
Yet, in all such cases, the starting point should be to trust the accuser unless evidence emerges to the contrary. She knows her life will be dragged through the dirt by those with the money and power, so it's not something that would have been done lightly. The presence of an NDA silencing her would push it into the no smoke without fire territory for me.
We'll see what pans out. Chalk up several ticks in the negative column.
On the positive side, it seems like Musk's purchase of Twitter may not happen. Phew.
[Update 21st May 2022]
I came across the Twitter thread below this morning, which definitely made me think. Musk's increasingly erratic and extreme behaviour fits this pattern perfectly, as does the way too many of his fans leap to his defence – but encouragingly, not all in the space industry. The abuse some got yesterday for daring to question him was disgusting.
Nothing changes my admiration for what SpaceX has achieved. The man? He'll likely spiral into deserved notoriety faster than JK Rowling.
[Update 4th October 2022]
Yeah, OK, the balance has swung decisively against him since my last update. His increasing descent into an increasingly right-wing misinformation bubble chamber has turned him into a dangerous joke. Despite the good he did deploying Starlink in Ukraine, he's now backing the Russian agenda in suing for peace.
In summary, I'm done with Musk. That doesn't stop me from admiring SpaceX, but that's due to their engineering, not their leader.
[Update 20th November 2022]
I give up. If anything, Musk's purchase of Twitter has gone even worse than I feared. Trump's back, and Musk seems to be increasingly deluded, authoritarian, dogmatic, and cares little for people who have opinions that differ from his. I have no time for him.
Raj Tamboli may have been a dick, but at least he was trying to save the world until his gamble went badly wrong and warped his outlook. Musk is just an egotistical man-baby.
Right, time to unwind my Twitter presence and do more on Mastodon. It seems a relatively sane place.