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H.G. Wells was ahead of his time – about bicycles

The War of the Wheels: H.G. Wells and the Bicycle

During the first half of his writing career, H.G. Wells (1866-1946) imagined a machine that would travel through time, the fearsome tripods of Martian invaders, a moon rocket powered by Cavorite, the military tank (in the short story “The Land Ironclads”) and other engineering marvels. But, as Jeremy Withers’ The War of the Wheels reminds us, the father of science fiction was also fascinated by the bicycle.

If you look through Wells’ bibliography, you’ll notice that he was never strictly a writer of what he called “fantasias of possibility.” Yes, he found his first success in The Time Machine, published in 1895, but that same year he also brought out a collection of slight fictional pieces titled Selected Conversations With an Uncle, a satirical fantasy called The Wonderful Visit – about an angel who is mistaken for a bird and shot by a clergyman – and The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents, a volume of his early science fictional short stories. In the next year, the industrious Wells then published his terrifying, Swiftian nightmare, The Island of Dr. Moreau, but also The Wheels of Chance, his first realistic, mildly comic novel in which a young draper’s apprentice goes off on a two-week bicycle holiday.

Obviously somewhat autobiographical – Wells had been a draper’s apprentice – that book reflects its author’s early passion for the bicycle. Throughout the 1890s, as Withers notes, England was crazy about cycling. What was called the “safety bicycle” – essentially the basic clunker we still know today – had supplanted those elegant big-and-small-wheeled marvels of earlier years. Pneumatic tires had improved ease of pedaling. Cycling clubs and specialty shops flourished. Hotshots, who sped along hunched over their handlebars, were called “scorchers.” Moralists worried that ladies might find sitting on a bike saddle sexually stimulating.

From a sociological viewpoint, as Wells noted, the bicycle helped widen the horizons of the working class. You could ride to your job, travel into the countryside for a picnic, enjoy open-air exercise. He and his wife, Jane, even acquired a “bicycle built for two” (the famous song, “Daisy Bell,” was written in 1892).

Locomotion, as Withers stresses, fascinated Wells. In the very first essay in “Anticipations” (1901) he discusses the limitations of rail travel and the traffic congestion that makes bicycling in London so dangerous. Another essay reflects on the military use of bicycle brigades. In “The Land Ironclads” (1903), the enemy’s seemingly invulnerable tanks are supported by cyclist-infantrymen.

Withers, a professor of English at Iowa State, touches on all these matters and writes intelligently, albeit with the contemporary academic’s weakness for off-putting jargon. I was mystified by “a Deleuzo-Guattarian assemblage,” which may have something to do with individual parts viewed as a whole. Wells could be long-winded in some of his later work, but he was always clear and understandable.

Withers does cogently argue that in The Wheels of Chance, Wells uses the bicycle to address a theme that recurs throughout his work: “humanity’s smugness regarding its own accomplishments, especially its technological ones.” Even bike-riding, in Withers’ interpretation of the novel, might contribute to a complacent, over-romanticized sense of the world. That said, one vividly remembers Wells’ poignant description of his own desperate ride “out of the cold skirts of a wintry night into a drizzling dawn along a wet road” to find a doctor for the dying Stephen Crane.

In other chapters, Withers examines the significance of bicycles in two of the scientific romances, The War of the Worlds (1898) and The War in the Air (1908). The first shows how shortsighted and self-satisfied humankind tends to be about its technology. People flee from the tripods on bicycles, but they cannot outrace the Martians; their tires go flat, they break down, and vehicle and rider are regularly crushed by the invaders. Withers pointedly remarks that the aliens don’t rely on wheels whatsoever (though I have always wondered how a three-legged contraption could walk without falling over).

The War in the Air has never been as widely read as Wells’ other scientific romances. Withers reminds us that its Cockney protagonist, Bert Smallways, is a partner in a bicycle shop, that the plans for a superior aeroplane are as simple as those for a bike and that, near the novel’s climax, two men on bicycles traverse a war-ravaged New York state to deliver those all-important plans to the president. However, most of the novel proffers a bleak vision of total war, as fleets of airships rain down destruction on the world’s cities. After Germany’s highly advanced zeppelins bomb New York to rubble, they are in their turn annihilated in a “jehad” by a pan-Asian air fleet. Much of the book draws on earlier tales of aeronautical piracy, such as Jules Verne’s Robur the Conqueror and George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution, but Wells’ conflict quickly widens into “a universal guerrilla war, a war inextricably involving civilians and homes and all the apparatus of social life.” Global economic collapse ensues, as all our great cities suffer Mosul-like violence, famine and pestilence, while a remnant of humanity eventually survives by scavenging and subsistence farming. Only in the book’s epilogue does Wells offer a brief hope that civilization, perhaps a more humane and human-scaled civilization, might reemerge: A little boy glimpses a man riding a bicycle.

On the last page of The War of the Wheels, Withers proposes that H.G. Wells could be “the patron saint for our many sustainable transport, local-is-better, and smart urban design movements.” Perhaps. One thing is sure: Even in the 21st century, Wells still speaks to our fears and dreams.