Reviews of Books

Extrapolation (2019), 60, (1), 65–96.


Reviews of Books Reviews of Books The Once and Future Bike. Jeremy Withers. The War of the Wheels: H. G. Wells and the Bicycle. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2017. 237 pp. ISBN 9780-81-563526-0. $29.95 pbk. Reviewed by Robert Crossley In 1898, at the height but also the last gasp of the nineteenth century’s love affair with the bicycle, “Nature’s Cycling Impulse” in the League of American Wheelmen Bulletin touted the bike as “the masterpiece of mechanical skill” and “the alphabet of human ingenuity.” In a century that had seen the development of railways, steamships, and electric trams, the bicycle could nevertheless be hailed as the most extraordinary advance in transport because it was available to almost everyone. H. G. Wells, fascinated by scientific advances and their technological applications, took a special interest in the phenomenon of bicycling both as transportation and as a recreational activity. In the 1890s and in the early years of the new century, bicycles were his own preferred means of transportation and frequent cynosures in both his fictional and nonfictional writings. At the end of his intriguing and often enlightening The War of the Wheels, however, Jeremy Withers explodes an apocryphal adage attributed to Wells by biking enthusiasts and cycling organizations: “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle I do not despair for the future of the human race.” This fake quotation remains alive and flourishing on the internet, although Withers (and other scholars) have said that there is not a shred of evidence that Wells ever wrote or uttered it. There is surely a Wellsian ring to a sentence that links technology, the future, and despair, but one aim of Withers’s study is to challenge the myth of Wells as the “patron saint” of bicycling. The War of the Wheels considers bicycles in the larger context of Wells’s preoccupation with all forms of transportation both in the present and the imagined future. Two things stand out in Withers’s argument. First, as with machines of all sorts, Wells views the bicycle ambivalently and critically, sometimes lauding it as an agent of independence, at other times indicating its dangers and limitations, and at still other times viewing it as obsolete as the nineteenth century yielded to the twentieth. There is no single position on bikes in Wells’s writing and he is far from being a cheerleader; for that, one must go to advocacy groups like the League of American Wheelmen. Second, Withers settles on 1914 as the Extrapolation, vol. 60, no. 1 (2019) https://doi.org/10.3828/extr.2019.5

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