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The War of the Wheels, by Jeremy Withers

An examination of the role played by the bicycle in the writings of HG Wells

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The War of the Wheels, by Jeremy WithersTitle: The War of the Wheels - HG Wells and the Bicycle
Author: Jeremy Withers
Publisher: Syracuse University Press
Year: 2017
Pages: 264
Order: SUP
What it is: The bicycle in the works of HG Wells
Strengths: Withers show there's more to Wells and bicycles than two hackneyed quotes and a novel that doesn't deserve the respect some shower on it, that across a range of novels, short-stories and non-fiction pieces Wells had a lot to say about the bicycle, both praising it and criticising it
Weaknesses: I do wish people would stop calling Wells a prophet, as if he were a vessel the Gods chose to use to impart their wisdom to us

"I have been cycling for a week, Guildford, New Bognor, Arundel, Pulborough, Reigate, and I must admit that the weather was really very good & no tampering with the brakes & so forth on the hills."
~ HG Wells to Elizabeth Healey, 1888 or 1889

Herbert George Wells was born - in his own wordsi - "three years before the opening of the first steam railway" in what he described as an era that was "still an age of horse and foot transit, sailing ships and undiscovered lands." He is most famous today as the man who wrote the book that the Rod Taylor-starring film The Time Machine was based on and the source of Jeff Wayne's prog-rock opera, War of the Worlds. Older readers may remember him as the source of the Tommy Steele-starring Half a Sixpence. Cycling fans, of course, will know him for more than the things others have borrowed from him: they'll know him for two quotes they borrow from himii and a novel of his they've never read but still cite as a must-read - or even the only readiii - for all book-loving bicyclists. Wells may very well be one of the fathers of modern science fiction but that doesn't mean that people bother reading his writings any more.

Jeremy Withers's The War of the Wheels does not seek to argue the literary merits of Wells's novels - another recent scholarly look at his oeuvreiv baldly states that many of the books Wells wrote "are not, simply, very good" - but rather argues their sociological merit, arguing that they give us both insight into Wells's time and our own, the two being joined by a theme Withers argues is crucial to Wells:

"H. G. Wells was obsessed with transportation. Throughout his vast corpus - over a hundred published books, thousands of articles and essays, dozens of short stories - readers encounter references to a staggering array of transport technologies. Tanks rumble across the pages of the short story 'The Land Ironclads.' Londoners desperately attempt to flee the walking Martian tripods by means of boats, carriages, and trains in The War of the Worlds. Elevated moving sidewalks slide citizens around the city in The Sleeper Awakes, a work that - like the novel Tono-Bungay and the story 'The Argonauts of the Air' - also showcases an intense interest on the part of Wells in the development of aeronautics. Airplanes and airships rain down destruction from above in The War in the Air, while trams, cars, and motorcycles scurry frantically below. Ships and cylinders are hurled through space in The First Men in the Moon and The War of the Worlds. The Time Traveller saddles his time machine for a ride hundreds of thousands of years into the future, and then eventually all the way to the dying days of a posthuman planet Earth. Automobiles flicker across the pages of Kipps as emblems of conspicuous wealth, while in his epic 'time out of joint' speech in that novel the dying socialist Masterman rails against the cars of the rich that dash around 'killing children and making machinery hateful to the soul of man.'"

Chief among the transport technologies that fascinated Wells, Withers tells us, was the bicycle. Like many a Victorian novelist - from Arthur Conan Doyle and Jerome K Jerome to Grant Allen and Alfred Jarry - Wells wasn't just a devotee of the craze of the hour, he allowed the bicycle to appear in his writing. The difference between Wells and others, though, is just how often he allowed the bicycle to appear. It forms part of the machine in The Time Machine (1895), it takes centre stage in The Wheels of Chance (1896), it features prominently in The War of the Worlds (1898), Kipps (1905), The War in the Air (1908), Tono-Bungay (1909), and The History of Mr Polly (1910), and it plays a small role in Mr Brittling Sees it Through (1916). In his shorter fiction and other non-fiction writings it is to be found in (among others) 'A Perfect Gentleman on Wheels' (1897), 'The Cyclist Soldier' (1900), 'The Soldier Cyclist' (1901), Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901), 'The Loyalty of Esau Common' (1902), and 'The Land Ironclads' (1903).

The argument made by Withers in The War of the Wheels is that:

"across his many references to the bicycle, 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. Put another way, this book will be interested throughout in exploring the ways in which Wellsian bicycles flicker between the literal and the figurative, the concrete and the metaphorical."

In considering the role played by the bicycle in The Wheels of Chance, Withers begins by looking at another novel from that era that featured the bicycle: The Type-Writer Girl (1897), published by the evolutionist Grant Allen under the pseudonym Olive Pratt Rayner. Both, Withers argues, show how in Wells's time the bicycle was "perceived as a powerful tool for putting people in closer contact with plants, animals, and ecosystems." (Today, of course, the bicycle is seen by many as being the ideal means to return us to some idealised prelapsarian past, our way back to the Garden of pre-automobile innocence.) However, Withers shows that Wells's most cycling-centric novel is not nearly as positive about cycling as the many who trumpet its charms would have you believe:

"The Wheels of Chance clearly values the bicycle as a machine that, despite its machineness, still holds significant potential to put urbanites into closer and more profound contact with the nature of the rural countryside - its plants, its animals, its ecosystems. However, this minimizing of estrangement from the natural world is deeply complicated by the end of the narrative. For the bicycle, as we have seen, carries with it a potential to overrule the interests and desires of the cyclist, to awaken an excessive and unhealthy amount of imagination, and to function as a direct antagonist to the denizens of the countryside such as weasels, horses, or dogs."

In general, in fact, Withers shows that Wells often portrayed the bicycle in ambivalent terms. In The History of Mr Polly Withers tells us that "the machine is positioned in the narrative as a guilty accomplice to Polly's immersion in excessive fantasy" while in 'A Perfect Gentleman on Wheels' Withers notes that "the bicycle nourishes Mr. Compton's imagination, but in a way that only sets him up for embarrassment and degradation." The War of the Worlds, Withers tells us, "embodies his most dismissive and disdainful attitudes toward the bike."

The War of the Worlds contains about a dozen references to the bicycle. At the start, we learn that the narrator "was much occupied in learning to ride the bicycle" while later we get a scene few modern disaster / dystopian films or books think to create:

"After a fruitless struggle to get aboard a North-Western train at Chalk Farm - the engines of the trains that had loaded in the goods yard there ploughed through shrieking people, and a dozen stalwart men fought to keep the crowd from crushing the driver against his furnace - my brother emerged upon the Chalk Farm road, dodged across through a hurrying swarm of vehicles, and had the luck to be foremost in the sack of a cycle shop. The front tire of the machine he got was punctured in dragging it through the window, but he got up and off, notwithstanding, with no further injury than a cut wrist. The steep foot of Haverstock Hill was impassable owing to several overturned horses, and my brother struck into Belsize Road.

"So he got out of the fury of the panic, and, skirting the Edgware Road, reached Edgware about seven, fasting and wearied, but well ahead of the crowd. Along the road people were standing in the roadway, curious, wondering. He was passed by a number of cyclists, some horsemen, and two motor cars. A mile from Edgware the rim of the wheel broke, and the machine became unridable. He left it by the roadside and trudged through the village. There were shops half opened in the main street of the place, and people crowded on the pavement and in the doorways and windows, staring astonished at this extraordinary procession of fugitives that was beginning. He succeeded in getting some food at an inn.

"For a time he remained in Edgware not knowing what next to do. The flying people increased in number. Many of them, like my brother, seemed inclined to loiter in the place. There was no fresh news of the invaders from Mars.

"At that time the road was crowded, but as yet far from congested. Most of the fugitives at that hour were mounted on cycles, but there were soon motor cars, hansom cabs, and carriages hurrying along, and the dust hung in heavy clouds along the road to St. Albans."

Where Wells gets particularly critical of the bicycle - of all of man's technological extensions - is in his description of the Martians and how mankind was already on the path to a transhuman future that could see them end up like their machine-hybrid invaders:

"The Martians wore no clothing. Their conceptions of ornament and decorum were necessarily different from ours; and not only were they evidently much less sensible of changes of temperature than we are, but changes of pressure do not seem to have affected their health at all seriously. Yet though they wore no clothing, it was in the other artificial additions to their bodily resources that their great superiority over man lay. We men, with our bicycles and road-skates, our Lilienthal soaring-machines, our guns and sticks and so forth, are just in the beginning of the evolution that the Martians have worked out. They have become practically mere brains, wearing different bodies according to their needs just as men wear suits of clothes and take a bicycle in a hurry or an umbrella in the wet."

Wells continues, suggesting that mankind's dependence on the wheel was a flaw the Martians had not fallen victim to:

"And of their appliances, perhaps nothing is more wonderful to a man than the curious fact that what is the dominant feature of almost all human devices in mechanism is absent - the wheel is absent; among all the things they brought to earth there is no trace or suggestion of their use of wheels. One would have at least expected it in locomotion. And in this connection it is curious to remark that even on this earth Nature has never hit upon the wheel, or has preferred other expedients to its development."

Withers's argument is that these depictions of the bicycle in The War of the Worlds "function as integral elements of the novel's overall project of undercutting humanity's smugness regarding its own accomplishments, especially its technological ones."

That smugness is also the target of The War in the Air, in which Withers tells us "we find an author who is deeply anxious about the ways in which the newest modes of transport of the early twentieth century, such as automobiles and airplanes, threaten to make distant places all too accessible. Wells admonishes his readers about how these new modes of transport can bring far-off people increasingly in contact with one another in ways that foster outbreaks of war." The bicycle, however, is seen here as an almost ideal technology, Withers comparing Wells to Ivan Illich "who defined 'technological maturity' as 'the world of those who have tripled the extent of their daily horizon by lifting themselves onto their bicycles.'". Free people, Illich said, "must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle" and Withers argues that this is something Wells would have agreed with him on.

Up to a point. For to offset the dystopia of The War in the Air we have A Modern Utopia, in which - as every sodding cyclist today knows - bicycle tracks will abound. So too will many other forms of transport, in fact:

"No doubt the Utopian will travel in many ways. It is unlikely there will be any smoke-disgorging steam railway trains in Utopia, they are already doomed on earth, already threatened with that obsolescence that will endear them to the Ruskins of to-morrow, but a thin spider's web of inconspicuous special routes will cover the land of the world, pierce the mountain masses and tunnel under the seas. These may be double railways or monorails or what not - we are no engineers to judge between such devices - but by means of them the Utopian will travel about the earth from one chief point to another at a speed of two or three hundred miles or more an hour. That will abolish the greater distances.... One figures these main communications as something after the manner of corridor trains, smooth-running and roomy, open from end to end, with cars in which one may sit and read, cars in which one may take refreshment, cars into which the news of the day comes printing itself from the wires beside the track; cars in which one may have privacy and sleep if one is so disposed, bath-room cars, library cars; a train as comfortable as a good club. There will be no distinctions of class in such a train, because in a civilised world there would be no offence between one kind of man and another, and for the good of the whole world such travelling will be as cheap as it can be, and well within the reach of any but the almost criminally poor.

"Such great tramways as this will be used when the Utopians wish to travel fast and far; thereby you will glide all over the land surface of the planet; and feeding them and distributing from them, innumerable minor systems, clean little electric tramways I picture them, will spread out over the land in finer reticulations, growing close and dense in the urban regions and thinning as the population thins. And running beside these lighter railways, and spreading beyond their range, will be the smooth minor high roads such as this one we now approach, upon which independent vehicles, motor cars, cycles, and what not, will go. I doubt if we shall see any horses upon this fine, smooth, clean road; I doubt if there will be many horses on the high roads of Utopia, and, indeed, if they will use draught horses at all upon that planet. Why should they? Where the world gives turf or sand, or along special tracts, the horse will perhaps be ridden for exercise and pleasure, but that will be all the use for him; and as for the other beasts of burthen, on the remoter mountain tracks the mule will no doubt still be a picturesque survival, in the desert men will still find a use for the camel, and the elephant may linger to play a part in the pageant of the East. But the burthen of the minor traffic, if not the whole of it, will certainly be mechanical. This is what we shall see even while the road is still remote, swift and shapely motor-cars going past, cyclists, and in these agreeable mountain regions there will also be pedestrians upon their way. Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia, sometimes following beside the great high roads, but oftener taking their own more agreeable line amidst woods and crops and pastures; and there will be a rich variety of footpaths and minor ways. There will be many footpaths in Utopia. There will be pleasant ways over the scented needles of the mountain pinewoods, primrose-strewn tracks amidst the budding thickets of the lower country, paths running beside rushing streams, paths across the wide spaces of the corn land, and, above all, paths through the flowery garden spaces amidst which the houses in the towns will stand. And everywhere about the world, on road and path, by sea and land, the happy holiday Utopians will go."

Wells, it is clear, has a lot to say about transport systems and the role played by the bicycle in them - and Withers, I think, succeeds in showing that Wells has more to contribute to that debate today than a hackneyed quote - but he also believed that bicycles had a role to play in warfare too. In Anticipations Wells envisages "a military bicycle with a wheel of solid iron that can be used as a shield", in 'The Cyclist Soldier' he envisages cycling units which "on coming into action will in most cases ride under fire, fan out, and scorch either individually or in a body for any cover that offers. Here they will dismount, lay their machines down, and advance or take defensive cover according to the nature of the fight."

In the same way we all know that cycling tracks will abound in Utopia we also know that Wells 'prophesied'v tank warfare in 'The Land Ironclads' but, as Withers argues, few of us know the role Wells envisaged bicyclists playing alongside tanks:

"Despite the technological sophistication and the efficacy of these 'land ironclads,' Wells clearly depicts the tanks as dependent upon the assistance of the bicycles that also ride into battle with them. The relationship that Wells portrays here between the bikes and tanks is, I would argue, a modest version of the Deleuzo-Guattarian 'assemblage.' [...] For now, in 'The Land Ironclads,' we see Wells conceiving of the tank-bicycle assemblage, an alliance of literal machines that allows each to 'enter into composition . . . with the affects of another body' and '[compose] a more powerful body.'"

One final aspect of cycling in Wells's era is considered by Withers and is even more relevant today than it was in Wells's times: capitalism and the forces of comodification. Or, to put it in easier to understand terms, the Raphafication of cycling and the sale of all sorts of branded tat to cyclists in order to improve their cycling experience. Here's Withers:

"Clearly for Wells, by around 1909, halftruths and outright lies have been allowed to fester so much within the world of advertising and corrupt it that all of its claims about what a product can or will not do have been rendered suspect. 'Tell me a solitary trade nowadays that hasn't to be - emphatic,' Edward [in Tono-Bungay] challenges his nephew, using the euphemism 'emphatic' where other people (like George) would likely say 'dishonest.' 'It's the modern way!' Edward continues. 'Everybody understands it - everybody allows for it.'

"We even see Edward appropriate the bicycle for one of his advertising campaigns, when the Ponderevos at one point try to branch out into selling 'Tono-Bungay Lozenges' and 'Tono-Bungay Chocolate.' In order to showcase how potent these new products are, and how effectively they combat 'fatigue and strain,' Edward and George distribute posters and advertisements that feature (among other things) 'cyclist champions upon the track.' Just as Sid in Kipps works to fashion the cyclist into a mundane capitalist consumer, so, too, do Edward and his nephew. And whether it is George and Edward hawking a product advertised to be a cure-all tonic drink, but which is actually 'insidiously dangerous to people with defective kidneys,' or Sid selling 'the best bikes at a democratic price,' Wells perceives both endeavors as being kept afloat only through blatant exaggerations and false claims."

* * * * *

I am no fan of HG Wells. I didn't read his books as a child and those that I have tried as an adult have done nothing for me. I appreciate his importance in the development of science fiction but I'm just not a fan of his writing. Throughout The War of the Wheels, though, Jeremy Withers kept my attention as he developed his argument about the role played by the bicycle in Wells's writing. I'm not sure I'm going to rush off and binge on Wells with new found fervour, but I think that when I do next try to read him I will be able to see beyond the writing and better engage with some of the ideas.

Withers shows that - especially for cycling fans - there is more to Wells than hackneyed quotes and an over-praised novel. He is, sadly, unlikely to cause that novel to be removed from cycling listicles but I do hope that Withers will have succeeded in giving people more to say about Wells and cycling than has heretofore been the case. And perhaps he will have succeeded in encouraging those engaged in today's transport debate to be as balanced about the bicycle as Wells was, to see the good and the bad of bicycle culture.

* * * * *

i Experiment in Autobiography (1934)

ii One of which is even more apocryphal than Henri Desgrange's passion for the perpendicular digit

iii Michael Hutchinson, in Re:Cyclists, who writes: "It tells you a certain amount about the status of cycling for most of the period since, that if you put them [The Wheels of Chance and Jerome K Jerome's Three Men on the Bummel] side by side on a shelf you will have before you almost the entire library of classic cycling novels."

iv Simon James's Maps of Utopia (2012)

v Of tanks and the role played by The Land Ironclads in 'prophesying' them Wells had this to say in War and the Future (1916): "They were my grandchildren - I felt a little like King Lear when first I read about them. Yet let me state at once that I was certainly not their prime originator. I took up an idea, manipulated it slightly, and handed it on."