Title: Taking the Line Volume 10 – Bikes in Space and Bikes in Space – Volume 2
Authors: Elly Bangs, Kate Berube, Elly Blue (editor), Fritz Bogott, Elizabeth Buchanan, Nicky Drayden, Maddy Engelfried, Caitlin Giddings, Amelia Greenhall (illustration), Jeanne Hilary, Gretchin Lair, Jessie Kwak, Matthew Lambert, 'Megulon-5', J Rex, Lisa Sagrati, Emily June Street, Aaron M Wilson
Publisher: Elly Blue Publishing
Pages: 55 and 94
What it is: Two collections of feminist cycling science fiction short stories
Strengths: Science fiction has, by and large, ignored the humble bicycle, these two volumes of feminist cycling science fiction short stories try to make up for that
Weaknesses: The usual patchy quality you will find in any anthology
Why are there so few bicycles in science fiction? Think about it for a moment. The first thing you're likely to come back at me with is ET, the BMX bandits making like the cow and jumping over the moon (which is actually a horrible starting point, it being typical of Hollywood's view of cycling, something for kids).
But then what?
Then the man you're going to be hearing a lot more about now that his work is all out of copyright: HG Wells. His time machine is, as every cyclist knows, a bicycle, of some sort: it has a saddle and the time traveller is described as mounting it. Although that could also mean it was modelled on a horse. But Wells was better known for his fancy for the fad of his time, the bicycle, than he was for equine diversions, so we assume his time machine was built about a bicycle. Certainly that's what Alfred Jarry thought when he took inspiration from Wells and wrote How to Construct a Time Machine, his device being built around what he described as an ebony frame, similar to the steel frame of a bicyclei. (You could also argue that Jarry's The Supermale - with it's Perpetual Motion Food and 10,000 mile race and its exploration of the limits of human endurance - is also science fiction.)
Those examples from Victorian times apart, there's not much, is there, not from the sciencey side of the sci-fi family? In order to meet the bicycle again we have to move fully into the realm of dystopian and post-apocalyptic futures. World War Z – which may be more of a horror film than sci-fi – is one stop, bikes briefly used in a way you would expect far more zombie films to pick up on, instead of relying on the easily stopped cars or more easily spooked horses they generally use too much of.ii
In an earlier dystopia, Ridley Scott – perhaps revisiting his early short Boy and Bicyle and his Hovis advert – briefly used bicycles in Blade Runner. The cycling cineaste Bruce Bennett explained their dual significance there, first "as a symbol of a catastrophic future in which the roads are choked with traffic, and the environment wrecked by industrial pollution" and secondly "as a symbol of an ‘orientalised’ future in which the West is culturally and economically transformed by globalisation." Again, as with the zombie films, the fact that bikes are so rarely used in this fashion in other science fiction seems striking. In the whole of Doctor Who, for instance, I can think of just one single episode – 'The Beast Below' – in which bikes are used in a sort of dystopia, by passengers aboard the Starship UK, as means of getting around the vessel, though here it is more a nostalgia fetish, a sort of steam-punk trip back to the ideal Britain of the 1940s and 1950siii.
Bennett also notes that an exercycle appears in Soylent Green, used as a way of generating electricity. That idea was also used by Charlie Brooker in one of his Black Mirror episodes ('15 Million Merits'), a future world where spin classes are mandatory, a way of generating electricity. The funny thing about those two instances is that, while pedal-powered cinemas are in vogue, film-makers by and large would rather show characters using hand-cranked generators than bike-powered ones.
The idea of bicycles generating electricity is picked up by one of the contributors to these two volumes of feminist cycling science fiction, Matthew Lambert, in his contribution, 'The Breathing Engine':
I’m a professional cyclist. Every morning the shuttle takes me to the power plant and I pump my legs to crank the turbines. My Gran said it didn’t used to be like this; they used to burn coal and petrol, pumped out of the ground and into the fire, through the wires to cozy little homes. But now the sky is dark with dead dinosaur breath, and the cozy homes have airtight windows.
(If you're at all curious about the feasibility of generating serious amounts of electricity using bicycles, watch the BBC's Bang Goes the Theory, which used 80 people on bikes to try and power a typical family house for 12 hours.)
Elsewhere across these two volumes of sci-fi short stories we've got the usual mix you find in anthologies: a couple of stories that lodge in the mind, some that barely register and a few you instantly forget.
One story requires a 6,033 character number to be pocket-dialled, calling back to Earth orbiting Prometheus-like protectors. If you think the odds of that are long – do the math – they're nothing compared to the chances of this bit of dialogue ever happening:
'So that’s how it is, then.'
'An accident. I can show you, there’s a magnet...'
'Of course it was.' He didn’t believe her, wasn’t even trying to keep composure. 'After all we’ve done for you. This was humanity’s chance to prove itself. You’ve ruined everything, you scheming criminal, you, you, you power hungry woman.'
That's science fiction for you: always nodding back to Harrison Ford arguing with George Lucas on the set of Star Wars.
Star Wars puts in an actual appearance, of sorts, in another story, Caitlin Giddings's 'Racing the Drones':
They say Amazon’s drones could do this job faster than us, but they haven’t seen me like this, threading through gridlocked traffic like I could take the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs, picking up and dropping tags before they’re even hardly called in. I race the streetcar through the industrial sector. I drop down into the ritzy Pearl District, past art galleries and coffee shops, sprinting around slow-moving hordes of shoppers who jump when they feel me phase through like a ghost. You just can’t program this kind of rhythm and motion.
Emily June Street's 'Winning is Everything' offers a steam-punk take on today's keirin races:
I crouched low over the handles.
Screams and stomping shook the floor beneath my velo.
My thighs sprang like a wildcat’s. When I rode, no insult could touch me. Governed by the keir-race code of honor, I pedaled behind Number Two instead of dusting him at the starting line as I wished. Before we turned the first paced lap, Number Four broke formation, surging up my outside. 'Boo! Boo!' shrieked the women’s row. But elsewhere, cheers greeted Four’s breach of etiquette. Everyone understood the gesture: a woman didn’t deserve a keir-racer’s honor.
Street now has a full novel of this, The Velocipede Races, (reviewed here) expanding the world created beyond the velodrome.
This being science fiction, you might imagine that someone would follow through on the too oft repeated line from Wells about cycle tracks abounding in utopia. But across these two volumes of cycling sci-fi stories – in addition to which there's a later volume and another in the pipeline for later this year – no one seems to get utopian futures, so you don't really get a future where the majority actually enjoy bicycling. What you generally get is the odd – often very odd – rebel who enjoys riding a bike. Cause, like, you know, cycling, it's rebellion.
I'm not sure that that's much better in terms of representing cycling than mainstream science fiction has been able to do so far.
i An idea in turn picked up by Hawkwind in Silver Machine
ii For more on bicycles and zombies this Reddit thread has some brilliant reasons for why not.
iii John Major's bastardisation of Orwell, a vision of an ideal Olde England filled with old maids biking to communion through the morning mist