The scrap yard at the north end of my long city street hummed like a dystopic anthill, the day I drove up in my 15-year-old compact car, parked in front of a heap of flattened wrecks winking in an oily sun, got out, and made my way to a busy office where a woman with a big smile and a raspy voice gave me $125.
Then I walked home into my future, the one where I’m middle aged and don’t have a car.
If I was sentimental about my silver no-frills Toyota Echo, the only car I’ve ever owned, with its stained seats, wet dog smell and necklace of sun-bleached bug carcasses in the edges of the rear window, that came later. Before the day was over, I’d started my new life riding my slightly newer bike to all the places, or almost all, where I once took my car.
I’d become in the parlance of spec fiction writers, and the academics who study them, a retro-futurist: integrating the past into the future, going back to go forward, someone for whom the bicycle is not just a way of getting around, but a cipher for resistance, even hopeful naiveté.
Jeremy Withers is one such academic. A cyclist and assistant professor at Iowa State University’s Department of English, he’s writing a book about why the bicycle—old, low-status tech—keeps showing up in science and speculative fiction, despite the genres’ “frequent association with extravagantly advanced machines like intergalactic spaceships, intelligent robots, and apocalyptic weapons.”
Stripped down to its basic technology, there’s something gorgeously stubborn, steam-punk sexy, about a bike: an assemblage of two wheels, pneumatic tires, cranks and chain, that has remained largely unchanged for the last 130 years. According to Withers, this hard-to-improve-on elegance and efficiency, makes for an ideal fictional avatar, “one that represents a variety of values: sustainability, rebellion, equity and innocence.”
Withers credits H. G. Wells, the avid cyclist and sci-fi progenitor, with taking two wheels into the imagined future. Wells, whose characters use bicycles to flee invading Martians in his 1898 classic, The War of the Worlds, included bicycles in his fiction and non-fiction, before and well after, the bicycle boom of the 1890s. Ever since, the bike makes guest appearances in spec and scifi, not to mention nostalgic fantasy, such as those spunky kids from Stranger Things who outgun faceless government vans on their high-handle-barred Schwinn cruisers and BMXs.
This is where I fully disclose my own nostalgia, even deep affection, for driving and an almost physical bond with the grubby car I scrapped. It was hard won. After moving out of my parents’ home before I’d finished high school, I juggled classes, late-night waitressing shifts, rent and laundry, vermin and weird neighbors, and scraped together enough for driving lessons—the expensive, certified ones that lead to insurance rebates. It seemed promising until in the same breath, my instructor, a frustrated actor, confessed he wanted to date me, and that I needed a car to practice on between lessons if I was going to pass my driver’s test, two things that did not sound mutually exclusive. I bailed, lost hundreds of dollars, and didn’t get behind a wheel again for another decade.
The prospect of turning 30 without a driver’s license filled me with a kind of cheater’s shame, as if I’d slipped past the ticket-booth of adulthood without paying. I was living in a big city by then, making enough money to pay my rent and afford driving lessons. If car ownership was still out of reach, occasional rentals promised escape from the city’s plumes of burnt hydrocarbons, the enervating noise, the kettle of skyscrapers. I failed my first test, and passed the second. But the relief of having my driver’s license at 28 was foreshortened. Within a year, I was pregnant and single and precariously employed. The possibility of ever driving shimmered like a mirage.
When my daughter was 18 months old, however, I remembered I owned a bike. I brought it out of storage, attached a child’s seat, strapped my toddler in and started to ride. Just like that, the isolated binary of our mother-daughter orbit opened up, into a galaxy of parks, places to shop, people to visit: all of it easier, attainable. Outside and in motion, we became stronger, more alive.
No wonder Wells and his contemporaries talked about the bicycle in utopian terms, as a panacea for everything from class division and alienation to lethargy. And why, in his era, a bunch of middle-class white women fell in love with the bicycle, claiming it as a tool of proto-feminist subversion. (“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” Susan B. Anthony, a towering figure in American women’s suffrage, famously pronounced.)
Anthony said the bicycle provided freedom and reliance for “untrammeled womanhood.” But in France circa 1860s, the press portrayed female cyclists, especially racers, as members of a naughty underclass—scandalous and socially marginal according to Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age. These two narratives, separated by privilege, transformed the bike into a symbol of rebellion, a thumbed-nose to power structures that let some in, left others out.
In Octavia E. Butler’s spec fiction masterpiece, Parable of the Sower, bicycles are ridden by the protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina and her family whenever they have to venture outside the safety of their walled neighborhood into the dystopic chaos of California circa 2024, a world of social and environmental collapse. The bicycle signals their marginalization as a racialized family, but also, for their duration within the walls, a relative privilege compared to those living outside them, some who don’t have bikes at all.
In 1993, the same year Butler’s novel was published, cyber-punk sci-fi writer William Gibson also places the bicycle in a future dystopia in Virtual Light. His California has been split by an earthquake into SoCal and NoCal. The haves are corporations with technology, money and plans to rebuild San Francisco with little care for the have-nots, such as the novel’s protagonist, a bike messenger named Chevette Marie Washington, who lives in a maze of squatters’ shacks and underground commerce called The Bridge, “that neon maw and all that patchwork carnival of scavenged surfaces.”
For Chevette, the rebellion of cycling is certainly independence, but also an embodied joy, what she calls being “…one wild-ass little dot of energy and matter.”
Perhaps it’s because the B-side of mobility is joy, that we see so many women pushing past barriers in order to ride: in nations, such as Iran, Egypt, Palestine, despite edicts and harassment; in cities where disability activists have campaigned for more adaptive options in bike sharing programs (Portland, Oregon) and quieter biking routes for these adapted bikes (Cambridge, UK); in national networks such as the US and Antigua-based 80-chapter Black Girls Do Bike (BGDB) that organizes rides and community events to encourage and support cycling among women and girls of color.
And yet the bike has its own glass ceiling, offering increased opportunities for employment and recreation, but only within a limited geography amenable to two wheels at low propulsion.
Elly Blue is the Portland, Oregon-based editor and publisher of the anthology Biketopia, Bicycle Science Fiction Stories in Extreme Futures, as well as the popular Bikes in Space series (the fifth is out at the end of this year.) Although she describes these publications as an “extremely niche genre of feminist bicycle science fiction” with “strangely, the broadest appeal of anything I’ve published,” she also notes, “I get fewer stories where the bicycle is an unwanted aspect and symbol of membership in a subclass, which is still one of its very strong meanings in the U.S. today.”
A car simply takes you further faster in North America. It conveys legitimacy. It says you’re in the game.
When I landed a job at a national newspaper during what was the most competitive newspaper market in the world at the time—late ‘90s Toronto—I was not asked if I had my driver’s license during the interview.
What thirty-something journalist couldn’t drive?
My daughter was five, and all my energy and finances had been squirrelled into our survival. As I tried to prove myself among the hyper-competent, the driven, the unforgiving, I couldn’t admit I didn’t have a license.
This worked as long as I was assigned stories downtown, or those that could be researched over the phone. If an out-of-city story required a car, I waited for a photographer to be assigned, and asked to ride with him or her. When I was flown to Calgary to cover breaking news three hours outside of the city, I hired a cab and paid $300 each way out of pocket to get there and back.
Certain opportunities that involved driving were avoided. Then an investigative reporter who’d recently joined the newsroom figured out I didn’t drive and outed me with a withering harangue.
A few months later, I had my license. It took remembering to release the parking brake, failure, tears and a bomb threat near the drivers’ exam centre where my second test was scheduled so my instructor, impressed that I got through the barricades, went easy on me and skipped the parallel parking.
But at 35, I was finally alone behind the steering wheel legally.
I loved driving.
The Toyota Echo, bought secondhand with a stripped-down stick shift and hand-cranked windows, had surprising pep. I learned how to finesse the clutch to get its four cylinders up mountain roads, through snow storms, correct a tendency to hydroplane, and leverage its fuel efficiency with hypermiling.
Open roads, road trips, road tunes and spontaneous explorations all across Canada and the US: The pure excessive freedom of it. Sleeping in the car, eating in the car. Being able to take my daughter camping and drive her friends skating, and doing large loads of groceries and responding to emergencies and getting to work on time if I hit the snooze button—it was a withheld pleasure that I gorged on.
So it was a surprise that the love affair gradually cooled. Being handmaiden to a 1.5 ton gas-powered bricolage of belching plastics, metal and rubber became a paradox of liberty and burden. Over time, I could feel the car making me lazy. I was spending too much time in traffic, driving frantically, and angrily jockeying for parking spots. Things starting breaking: the a/c, the radio, the muffler, backlights. All the hubcaps were gone.
More and more, I chose to ride my bicycle, seeking to recapture an earlier hale, less-stressed-out version of myself.
According to Withers, as the automobile took over more space on our roads in the 1950s, it also colonized our definition of success and maturity: advertisers simultaneously portrayed the bicycle as increasingly toy-like and juvenile. Getting rid of my car to cycle more prompted a palpable shift in others’ regard. Not quite pity face, but a sort of indulgent worry that I’d fallen on hard times. Or a slight defensiveness in face of what was assumed to be earth-fart virtue-signaling. (It didn’t help when my partner converted our driveway into a raised vegetable garden on a city cul de sac where parking’s at a premium.) Or even a slightly patronizing attitude: Oh, funny you.
It’s not a utopia.
As the two-wheeled among the four-wheeled, it’s always on my mind: the moment everything changes. Like mouthing off to an Audi driver with a twitchy gas pedal and enough cash to buy himself out of a breathalyzer test. Like getting rammed by a ragey drag racer cloaked in tinted windows or a texting distracted mom. Like being doored, dragged, run into poles, sucked under, cut off, squeezed off the road. Like suffering contusions; concussions; broken and cracked skulls, pelvises, collar bones, knees and femurs. With no sick days to recover—if I live to recover. (A few summers ago, Toronto’s former chief planner deemed the deaths of cyclists and pedestrians on that city’s streets “a state of emergency.”)
Yet, there are too many upsides to deter me. Riding a bicycle means physically experiencing the city, chewing its not always great air, feeling sun and breezes, spotting the surprising number of wildlife that co-exist with you, tolerating rain and cold days more easily, mapping alleys and side streets and workarounds, coming face to face with hometown inequities that a car let me glibly pass. Simply, I meet more people on a bike.
And there’s something to going back to go forward, especially in middle age, when it’s so easy to contract into fearfulness, to stop taking risks, denying ourselves not just the untethered joy of self-propelled speed, but wonder, relief from our own cynicism.
If getting a driver’s license is the North American initiation into adulthood, then learning to ride a bike is a kind of prequel, an initiation into freedom, one that’s still distinct from the world of adults and their porous values. There’s a reason so many of my friends binge-watched both seasons of Stranger Things. When Mike Wheeler and his buddies save Eleven from the government baddies in a bike chase, it riffs on Elliot bundling a bobble-headed alien into his bike’s milk-cart carrier to dodge authorities in 1982’s E.T. It reminds us of our former selves, escaping the stupidity of adults, salvaging a bit of what for Parable of the Sower’s Lauren is both a gift and a hindrance: her hyper-empathy or “sharing,” the ability to feel viscerally the pain of others.
“In so many ways, the bike represents the right amount of technology,” Withers told me over the phone recently while he was doing research at the Eaton Collection, a science fiction archive housed at The University of California-Riverside. “It’s not one that so overwhelms our life and social landscape.”
According to him, the more motor vehicles dominated North American roadways and our psyche, the more science fiction writers pushed back against the car’s hegemony. In an article for Science Fiction Studies entitled “Bicycles Across the Galaxy: Attacking Automobility in 1950s Science Fiction,” Withers analyzes how writers such as Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and Harlan Ellison, to name a few, were suspicious of overly complex technology because it was “… all too likely to escape the control of their creators and to contribute to the misery of humanity.”
In the summer of 2018, there were wildfires out of control in Greece, California, British Columbia, and my own province of Ontario. In November 2019, when Australia went up in flame, nearly 26 million acres were burned. Not just natural regeneration, but fires so hot, from tinder so dry, their flames spiraled into tornados, pushing back seasoned firefighters unused to this ferocity, causing evacuations, death. Extremes are starting to feel normal. Spring floods precede record-breaking summer heat waves and drought, snowless winters, retreating polar ice.
One driver swapping out for a bicycle means little. And the truth is I still drive on occasion, using a car share program for those places I can’t get to on my bicycle.
But if sci-fi or spec fiction are cautionary tales, they warn us about expecting technology—geoengineering, weather manipulation, warfare—to dig us out of problems caused by other technology. A tweak to behavior could be as meaningful.
Surely, there’s a sweet spot where more of us driving less translates to more cyclists, more transit, safer pedestrians, a trophic cascade of benefits—economic, environmental, health, happiness—that would reset our out-of-whack urban ecologies. (Ever notice that those countries ranked happiest in the world also are considered among the most cycle-friendly?)
When is the right time for the right amount of technology?
Middle age. Because my generation has burned through carbon like trust-fund kids on a bender. Because my comfort has knit me into a strait jacket of change-aversion. Middle age is a great time to ditch four wheels for two.
The bicycle keeps showing up in the fictional future not because we can postpone the need for sustainability, equity, rebellion and innocence until later, but because that need hides in plain sight, right here, right now.
In Gibson’s Virtual Light, Chevette consumes little, takes up little space, and her bike with its “coat of spray-on imitation rust and an artful bandaging of silver duct tape” has to be protected from thieves. Yet she prevails against the higher technology unleashed upon her:
Sometimes when she rode hard…Chevette got free of everything: the city, her body, even time…The bike between her legs was like some hyper-evolved alien tail she’d somehow extruded, as though over patient centuries; a sweet and intricate bone machine, grown Lexan-armored tires, near frictionless bearings, and gas-filled shocks.
Good for the body, easy on the land, engineered for joy—that’s my ride.