The War of the Wheels: H. G. Wells and the Bicycle, by Jeremy Withers, Syracuse: New York: Syracuse University Press, 2017.
Jeremy Withers in The War of the Wheels: H. G. Wells and the Bicycle provides the “first in-depth analysis of bikes in Wells’ long and prolific writing career” (p. 3). This book joins other studies that have analyzed specific objects from Wells’ works. The War of the Wheels provides a window into an aspect of Wells’ work that is critical to understanding more completely the ways in which technology mesmerized Wells, yet repulsed him at the same time. Wither argues that the bicycle is an instrument exemplifying the conflicts Wells noted between the versatility, accessibility, and usefulness of technology versus the destructiveness to life and health when used carelessly, the extravagant financial expenditures which capitalist marketing encouraged, and the ways in which humans could become oppressed in their blind pursuit of technology.
Withers uses Wells’ writings, including The War of the Worlds, The Sleeper Awakes, Tono-Bungay, The War in the Air, The First Men in the Moon, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought, A Modern Utopia, The Shape of Things to Come, Experiment in Autobiography, Kipps, War and the Future, “The Land Ironclads” and “The Argonauts of the Air” as primary source documents to ascertain Wells’ views of the bicycle. Withers expands his analyses to demonstrate how Wells’ portrayal of the bicycle reflects a broader interest in technology of all kinds and grounds his research in the history of the bicycle, pertinent technological advancements of Wells’ era, and historical events occurring during Wells’ lifetime. Endnotes and the bibliography provide adequate documentation and direct the reader to additional useful resources.
In six chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion Withers uses Well’s writings to take the reader through the different stages of his life. Overall Withers highlights a progression from distrust of the bicycle to acceptance followed by enthusiastic endorsement to a gradual disillusionment, and finally a loss of interest in the bicycle as automobiles took their place in Wells’ psyche. Withers notes that while other writers of the period also found bicycles fascinating and may also have had ambiguous relationships with them, the extreme endorsement and eventual disillusionment Wells experienced is an outlier in intensity and duration. Other writers moved on from bicycles to automobiles to aircraft, war machines, and trains quickly while Wells continued writing extensively about bicycles for an additional twenty-year period.
Withers shows how Wells’ personal experiences and his love of cycling impacted his writing about bicycles and technology. As Wells’ personal life became more complex and his financial status rose exponentially, Withers notes the gradual acceptance of the automobile by Wells as more useful and less physically demanding. Along with Wells’ personal acceptance of the automobile and Wells’ decreased use of the bicycle, Withers points out the decreased enthusiasm for bicycles by Wells in his writing and the increased emphasis on other modes of transportation and alternative ways Wells represented technology. During a period of physical impairment suffered by Wells during which he was unable to cycle, Wells’ work began to emphasize the era’s concern with health risks associated with bicycles.
Wells drew an analogy between the human power that propelled the bicycle and how mechanical sources of power were multiplied by technology. Initially, Wells seemed satisfied that the bicycle would become a utopian vehicle that all social classes would use to increase their mobility—a positive advance that allowed urbanites to experience the adjoining natural world. However, the bicycle’s inherent limitations discouraged urbanites from forsaking completely the company of their fellows or traveling over great distances. Over time Wells came to see the bicycle as a health hazard for both riders and bystanders. Additionally, Wells argued that the aggressive sales techniques bicycle companies and their representatives employed resulted in extravagant expenditures for accessories that did not make the bicycle any more useful, but encouraged frivolous spending and provided ways to set oneself apart from others. As his personal riding habits decreased, Wells’ written works grew more negative toward bicycles. Eventually Wells’ loyalties shifted to automobiles.
Wells’ belief that bicycles would become ubiquitous and highly useful instruments of war dominated much of Wells’ writing during the period before World War I. When bicycles played a limited role in the conflict despite curtailments in other forms of transportation, Wells’ expectations required reevaluation. He eventually removed bicycles completely from his writings.
Positives of The War of the Wheels include its comprehensive use of a wide variety of Wells’ writings to document his attitudes toward bicycles and technology, the excellent grounding of The War of the Wheels in the historical events that Wells experienced, and Withers’ interactions with others who have written about Wells and technology. Several weaknesses exist. The most serious is the lack of acknowledgement of the discrepancy between Wells’ written endorsement for socialist political ideology and Wells’ personal life, which reflected an increasing striving for capitalistic accoutrements. Although Withers notes some of Wells’ inconsistency in this area regarding the types of automobiles Wells favored, Withers does not probe other inconsistencies in Wells’ political philosophy with his lived example. Moreover, Withers’ chapter on health hazards to bicycle operators lacks the same high level of historical and cultural development that the rest of the work displays.
Overall this is a well-written book that draws interesting and, for the most part, well-supported conclusions, about Wells’ views of technology as refracted through his views of the bicycle. Although this book is probably best geared toward undergraduate and graduate college level literature students, any reader capable of reading Wells will be able to read this book to advantage.
Joseph Baumstarck, Jr.
University of Louisville