How Elon Musk is constructing a sci-fi world

The last week of October, Bill Gates (net worth: $138 billion) celebrated his 66th birthday in a cove off the coast of Turkey, ferrying guests from his rented yacht to a beach resort by a private helicopter. Guests included Jeff Bezos (net worth: $197 billion), who after the party flew back to his own yacht, not to be confused with the “superyacht” he is building at a cost of more than $500 million.

The world’s richest person, Elon Musk (net worth: $317 billion), did not attend. He was most likely in Texas, where his company Space X was preparing for a rocket launch. Mark Zuckerberg (net worth: $119 billion) wasn’t there, either, but the day after Mr. Gates’s party, he announced his plan for the metaverse, a virtual reality where, wearing a headset and gear that closes out the actual world, you can spend your day as an avatar doing things like going to parties on remote Aegean islands or boarding a yacht or flying in a rocket, as if you were obscenely rich.

The metaverse is at once an illustration of and a distraction from a broader and more troubling turn in the history of capitalism. The world’s techno-billionaires are forging a new kind of capitalism: Muskism. Mr. Musk, who likes to troll his rivals, mocked Mr. Zuckerberg’s metaverse. But from missions to Mars and the moon to the metaverse, it’s all Muskism: extreme, extraterrestrial capitalism, where stock prices are driven less by earnings than by fantasies from science fiction.

Metaverse, the term, comes from a 1992 science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, but the idea is much older. There’s a version of it, the holodeck, in “Star Trek,” a TV show that Mr. Bezos was obsessed with as a kid; last month, he sent William Shatner, the actor who played Captain Kirk in the original series, into space. Billionaires, having read stories of world-building as boys, are now rich enough, as men, to build worlds. The rest of us are trapped in them.

Weirdly, Muskism, an extravagant form of capitalism, is inspired by stories that indict … capitalism. At Amazon Studios, Mr. Bezos tried to make a TV adaptation of the Culture space opera series, by the Scottish writer Iain Banks (“a huge personal favorite”); Mr. Zuckerberg put a volume of it on a list of books he thinks everyone should read; and Mr. Musk once tweeted, “If you must know, I am a utopian anarchist of the kind best described by Iain Banks.”

But Banks was an avowed socialist. And, in an interview in 2010, three years before his death, he described the protagonists of the Culture series as “hippy commies with hyper-weapons and a deep distrust of both Marketolatry and Greedism.” He also expressed astonishment that anyone could read his books as promoting free-market libertarianism, asking, “Which bit of not having private property and the absence of money in the Culture novels have these people missed?”

Admittedly, it’s possible these men’s sci-fi fandom is so much tech-bro-PR blather, but these are very smart people and you do get the sense they’ve actually read these books. (Mr. Gates, a philanthropist, isn’t much involved in all this. “I’m not a Mars person,” he said last winter. He read a lot of science fiction as a kid but has mostly left it behind, and, full disclosure, he once put a book of mine on a list of gift books for the holidays, so I’m in no position to question the man’s taste.) Muskism, it seems, involves misreading.

Muskism has origins in Silicon Valley of the 1990s, when Mr. Musk dropped out of a Ph.D. program at Stanford to start his first company and then his second, X.com. As the gap between the rich and the poor grew wider and wider, the claims of Silicon Valley start-ups became more and more grandiose. Google opened an R&D division called X, whose aim is “to solve some of the world’s hardest problems.”

Tech companies started talking about their mission, and their mission was always magnificently inflated: transforming the future of work, connecting all of humanity, making the world a better place, saving the entire planet. Muskism is a capitalism in which companies worry — very publicly, and quite feverishly — about all manner of world-ending disasters, about the all-too-real catastrophe of climate change, but more often about mysterious “existential risks,” or x-risks, including the extinction of humanity, from which only techno-billionaires, apparently, can save us.

But Muskism has earlier origins, too, including in Mr. Musk’s own biography. Much of Muskism is descended from the technocracy movement that flourished in North America in the 1930s and that had as a leader Mr. Musk’s grandfather Joshua N. Haldeman, an ardent anti-communist. Like Muskism, technocracy took its inspiration from science fiction and rested on the conviction that technology and engineering can solve all political, social and economic problems. Technocrats, as they called themselves, didn’t trust democracy or politicians, capitalism or currency. Also, they objected to personal names: one technocrat was introduced at a rally as “1x1809x56.” Elon Musk’s youngest son is named X Æ A-12.

Mr. Musk’s grandfather, an adventurer, moved his family from Canada to South Africa in 1950, two years after the start of the apartheid regime. In the 1960s, South Africa recruited immigrants by billing itself as a lavish, sun-soaked, custom-made, whites-only paradise. Elon Musk was born in Pretoria in 1971. (To be clear, Elon Musk was a child of apartheid, not an author of it. He also left South Africa at 17 to avoid being conscripted into the military that enforced it.)

As a teenager, he read Douglas Adams’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”; he plans to name the first SpaceX rocket to Mars after the crucial spaceship in the story, the Heart of Gold. “Hitchhiker’s Guide” doesn’t have a metaverse, but it does have a planet called Magrathea, whose inhabitants build an enormous computer to ask it a question about “life, the universe and everything.” After millions of years, it answers, “Forty-two.” Mr. Musk says that the book taught him that “if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part.” But that is not the only lesson of “Hitchhiker’s Guide,” which also didn’t start out as a book. Adams wrote it for BBC Radio 4, and, starting in 1978, it was broadcast all over the world — including to Pretoria.

“Far back in the mists of ancient time, in the great and glorious days of the former galactic empire, life was wild, rich and, on the whole, tax-free,” the narrator intones at the beginning of an early episode. “Many men, of course, became extremely rich, but this was perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of because no one was really poor, at least, no one worth speaking of.” “Hitchhiker’s Guide,” in other words, is an extended and very, very funny indictment of economic inequality, a science-fiction tradition that stretches all the way back to the dystopias of H.G. Wells, a socialist.

Early science fiction emerged during an era of imperialism: Stories about traveling to other worlds were generally stories about the British Empire. As Cecil Rhodes himself said, “I would annex the planets if I could.” The best early science fiction offered a critique of imperialism. Wells began his 1898 novel, “War of the Worlds,” in which Martians invade Earth, by remarking on British colonial expansion into Tasmania, writing that the Tasmanians, “in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of 50 years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” Wells wasn’t justifying Martians; he was indicting the British.

Douglas Adams was to South Africa what H.G. Wells was to the British Empire. The U.N. General Assembly denounced apartheid as violating international law in 1973. Three years later, police officers opened fire on thousands of Black schoolchildren during a protest in Soweto, an atrocity extensively reported on by the BBC.

Adams wrote “Hitchhiker’s Guide” for the BBC in 1977. It takes particular aim at the mega-rich, with their privately owned rockets, establishing colonies on other planets. “For these extremely rich merchants, life eventually became rather dull, and it seemed that none of the worlds they settled on was entirely satisfactory,” the narrator says. “Either the climate wasn’t quite right in the later part of the afternoon or the day was half an hour too long or the sea was just the wrong shade of pink. And thus were created the conditions for a staggering new form of industry: custom-made, luxury planet building.”

This would appear to be exactly what Mr. Bezos and Mr. Musk are up to, with their plans for the moon and Mars, annexing the planets if they could. And Douglas Adams? He wrote “Hitchhiker’s Guide” on a Hermes manual typewriter. He’d decorated that typewriter with a sticker. It says, “END APARTHEID.”

How have these men so gravely misread these books? One clue lies in the science fiction they seem, mostly, to ignore: new wave, Afrofuturism, feminist and post-colonial science fiction, the work of writers like Margaret Atwood, Vandana Singh, Octavia Butler and Ted Chiang.

Ursula K. LeGuin once wrote an essay, a riff on an essay by Virginia Woolf, about how the subject of all novels is the ordinary, humble, flawed human being. Woolf called her “Mrs. Brown.” LeGuin thought midcentury science fiction — of the sort written by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, two more writers lavishly admired by Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos — had lost track of Mrs. Brown. This version of science fiction, she worried, seemed to be “trapped for good inside our great, gleaming spaceships, hurtling out across the galaxy,” ships she described as “capable of containing heroic captains in black and silver uniforms” and “capable of blasting other, inimical ships into smithereens with their apocalyptic, holocaustic rayguns, and of bringing loads of colonists from Earth to unknown worlds,” and finally “ships capable of anything, absolutely anything, except one thing: they cannot contain Mrs. Brown.”

The future envisioned by Muskism and the metaverse — the real and virtual worlds being built by techno-billionaires — doesn’t contain Mrs. Brown, either. Misreading both history and fiction, it can’t even imagine her. I think someone maybe ought to make a sticker. It could read, “EXIT THE METAVERSE.”

Elon ​Musk’s net worth rose by $24 billion to $335.1 billion Monday as the electric automaker’s shares jumped 8.5% in New York…

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