Sunday, 12 June 2011

Cycling in Utopia

I’ve written before in this blog about May Morris’s passion for cycling (2 August 2008), but it can hardly be said that this enthusiasm is shared by society at large today. In an interim assessment of the current ‘Understanding Walking and Cycling’ study, Dave Horton remarks that ‘many people barely recognise the bicycle as a legitimate mode of transport; it is either a toy for children or a vehicle fit only for the poor and/or strange’ (The Guardian, 4 June 2011). So we need to find all the positive images of cycling we can to pit against this indifference or hostility, and utopia, I’m glad to say, offers us a good many.

In A Modern Utopia (1905) H.G. Wells gives us a Darwinianly kinetic utopia which will embody what he calls ‘the travel age of mankind’. Transport systems are accordingly an important part of his futuristic vision, and it is encouraging to know that ‘cycle tracks will abound in Utopia, sometimes following beside the great high roads, but often taking their own more agreeable line amidst woods and crops and pastures’.

Spinning briskly down those genial tracks will presumably be the admirable bicycle that Joanna Russ imagines in her utopian Whileaway in The Female Man (1975), ‘a stout machine, with broad tires (compared to ours) and a receiver for registering radio beacons ... Her bicycle was singing the musical tone that lets you know you’re on course, a very lovely sound to hear over the empty fields’. So there you are: sat-nav decades avant la lettre.

But my favourite utopian bicycles are those in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge (1990), which won’t need H.G. Wells’s cycle tracks at all because they are, after some rugged muscular work to get their propellors going, aerial rather than terrestrial: ‘Kevin would hear a voice from above, and looking up he would see her in her little Hughes Dragonfly, making a cyclist’s whirr and waving down like a sweaty air spirit’ These wonderful flying bikes will certainly take some beating; so let us hope that future utopian writers can rise to the challenge!


J. Bell said...

For an excellent account of the current cultural and political meanings of cycling, see Martin Ryle's 'Velorutionary?' in 'Radical Philosophy' 168, July/August 2011, pp.2-7.

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