Book Review: The War of the Wheels: H.G. Wells & the Bicycle Looks At Wells’ Captivation With the Bicycle

By Charles Pekow

Both science fiction and modern technology have come up with all sorts of ways to move people. And Utopian dreamers have sought to eliminate social reliances ranging from currency and marriage to government. But any futuristic society can and should include bicycles, no matter what technology or social philosophy guides it, suggests the totality of the works of one of the great versatile writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

War of the Wheels. HG Wells and the Bicycle by Jeremy Withers
War of the Wheels. HG Wells and the Bicycle by Jeremy Withers

H.G. Wells, the multi-genre English scribe, probably best known for popularizing the science fiction genre with works such as “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds” (upon which the title for this book puns upon), also wrote everything from biography to social commentary to futuristic visions; and he wrote about war, technology and much more in fictional and non-fictional realms.

In The War of the Wheels: H.G. Wells & the Bicycle, English Professor Jeremy Withers of Iowa State University spins us through Wells' portrayals of the bicycle and how his views of it changed over his lifetime.

A famous quote from Wells discussed in the book could have become a mantra for cycling advocates: “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.” Unfortunately, as the book discusses, the quote is apocryphal, as it doesn't appear in any of his known writing. But Wells did write in his 1905 A Modern Utopia “Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia.”

Wells often wrote about every type of transport available for land, sea and sky. But as Withers tells us, with “the debatable exception of flying technologies, cycling was the mode of transport that most captivated Wells.” Withers calls is own treatise “the first in-depth analysis of bikes in Wells' long and prolific writing career.”

Yet no matter how much technology or advances in transportation will take us, the bicycle will remain a part of human lives in Wells's world. Wells frequently featured bicycles throughout his comedies, short stories, futurism, autobiography, private letters, etc. and maintained an ambiguous but basically positive attitude toward them. They are great in moving people and promoting health but could become overused as a status symbol and over-commercialized with all sorts of gadgets (that have become commonplace today, ranging from saddlebags to cycling shoes).

“Wells found the machine to be a useful literary device for creating elaborate characters and for exploring complex themes, while he also often saw the bike as a springboard for meditations on technology and transportation in general,” the tome tells us.

Wells' attitude evolved along with the role of the bicycle during his long lifetime (1866-1946), a span which started out when adults (including Wells) used the bicycle as a major means of personal transport to an era when autos largely replaced them and flight became common.

But Wells presciently saw in his works such as the 1910 comedy “The History of Mr. Polly” that bicycling could remain a tool for a healthy lifestyle, as Alfred Polly's digestive troubles vanish when he takes up cycling and return when he gives up riding.

Withers divides the book into chapters on how Wells wrote about bikes' relationships and roles with different contexts: nature, arrogance, warfare, hyper mobility and commodification. Riding a bike can help you zip through the natural world just like riding a horse “as a nonthreatening machine that glides along as a harmonious part of the landscape, transporting its rider as he delights in observations of the plants and animals surrounding him,” Withers writes of Wells's portrayal in “The Wheels of Chance,” a comic look at the cycling fad of the 1890s. And the The War of the Wheels gets into a discussion about machines vs. nature and how bicycles straddle the line.

But the bicycle can also make people feel smug an arrogant, Wells tells us, as in the late 1800s, it became a plaything and vehicle of the elite. And in “The War of the Worlds,” the bicycle falls short as an escape vehicle from Martian invaders.

A whole chapter deals with the use of bicycle in war. In a century that saw everything from the advent of tanks and poison gas to fighter plans and atomic bombs, the bicycle remained part of armies. Wells advocated for their use in World War I. But he argues that providing bicycles to warriors can help with their mental and physical health in addition to getting them from place to place.

But in Wells' 1907 novel “The War in the Air,” Wells suggests that if societies promoted the bicycle instead of other more technological and faster means of transport, we might avoid horrific wars that ultimately occurred since and are still taking place.

Like many great sci-fi writers, Wells was also well ahead of his time (or today's advocates aren't so unique) when in 1902 he advocated for cycling and the need to build more and better bicycling infrastructure.

But as Wells got older and drove a car and the automobile became more popular, he became less of an advocate of the bicycle, Withers chronicles. Wells writes more about cars in his later works but treats them much the same as he does bicycles: they help us get around but feed conceit when used as status symbols.

The book provides example after example from Wells' works. After while, it makes the reader feel as though he's riding the same trail again and again. Still there's a lot there that can reinforce the beliefs of avid cyclists. The book also relates how some of Wells' contemporary writers viewed bicycles. (The book doesn't say so but the great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury also got around by bike.)

The War of the Wheels also ties in what some contemporary writers of Wells wrote about bicycling. Anyone not intimately familiar with Wells' works is undoubtedly missing a lot of nuance while reading the work. It might make you want to read or reread Wells. And knowing that such a great mind with futuristic visions who stood the test of time saw an eternal role for the bicycle can reinforce the philosophical argument for bicycling today and always.

The War of the Wheels: H.G. Wells & the Bicycle by Jeremy Withers, $60 hardcover, $29.95 paperback, Syracuse University Press, 621 Skytop Rd., Suite 110, Syracuse, NY 13244-5290, (315) 443-5534, fax (315) 443-5545, [email protected], goo.gl/EL9JQn.

 

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