Archives for the month of: April, 2016

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Science fiction is a very loose generic category of film and literature but a defining component of much science fiction is the narrative presence of a futuristic, anachronistic or impossible technological object, a narrative MacGuffin that provides a rationale and motive power for what takes place within the story.  Perhaps for this reason, as a product of 19th-century technology the bicycle does not feature heavily in science fiction film and literature since, on the face of it,  it is not an obvious signifier of the future (although the utopian discourses surrounding the bicycle’s revolutionary potential suggest it as an obvious focus for speculative accounts of decelerated, post-oil futures). Blade Runner (Scott, 1984), which includes a brief shot of a peloton of children skimming through the dark, rain-drenched streets is a rare exception in mainstream cinema. In that context, the bicycle has a dual significance both as a symbol of a catastrophic future in which the roads are choked with traffic, and the environment wrecked by industrial pollution, and also as a symbol of an ‘orientalised’ future in which the West is culturally and economically transformed by globalisation. A bicycle also makes the briefest of appearances in Soylent Green (Fleischer, 1973), the apocalyptic adaptation of Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel, Make Room! Make Room!, where the protagonists have rigged up a stationary bicycle to generate electricity. Perhaps the most famous image of the bicycle in science fiction cinema is that of the young boy Elliott taking flight on his Kuwahara BMX bike carrying the eponymous alien in his basket in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982). In  Spielberg’s fantasy film, however, the bicycle is not so much a signifier of futuristic technology as the means by which the magical powers of ET  is demonstrated, and it it is an important symbol of childhood fantasies of freedom and independence (and of course, in US cinema, the bicycle is almost invariably treated as a child’s vehicle).

Motorbikes in various forms are a slightly more visible presence within SF cinema from the speeder bikes of the Star Wars films or the light cycles of Tron (Limburger, 1982) (designed by visual futurist Syd Mead, also the design consultant on Blade Runner who recently railed against the ‘eco-elitism’ and ‘specious folly of Los Angeles bicycle advocates), through to the streamlined sport bikes streaking around Neo-Tokyo in the animated manga adaptation Akira (Otomo, 1988), or the steam-powered mono-wheel in the steampunk anime Steamboy (Otomo, 2004) (above). However, as is revealed by the growing popularity of the e-bike and recent reports about ‘mechanical doping’ – the concealment of miniature motors inside racing bikes – the distinction between motorcycle and bicycle is increasingly unclear.

A fascinating edition of the beautifully designed feminist cycling ‘zine, Taking the Lane, compiled a number of short SF pieces under the title Bikes in Space: A Feminist Science Fiction Anthology.  Published in 2013, Bikes in Space makes a significant contribution to the modest field of bicycle-related SF and has been followed by two further volumes, but what has set me thinking thinking about this topic recently was reading The Star Diaries (1971) by Polish writer Stanislav Lem. An anthology of stories written over a period of 20 years and broadly based on Gulliver’s Travels, it consists of often absurd and satirical accounts of journeys through space among which the protagonist Ijon Tichy encounters two bizarre mutations of the bicycle and includes illustrations of them in his journals (drawn by Lem himself). The first of these, in the 20th voyage, is  ‘the chronocycle’, a machine that allows the rider to travel through time and provides the premise for an increasingly convoluted and farcical story about attempts to refashion and improve of the earth’s history.

chronocycle.jpegThe second, encountered in the 25th voyage, is the ‘procyte’, a humanoid creature that has evolved with a large wheel fused to its legs.

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What is striking about these two versions of the bicycle is that they encapsulate key aspects of the experience of cycling. On the one hand, the bicycle is a prosthetic extension of the body, allowing us to travel much faster and farther than we can on foot. When we ride a bike we become a procyte, a cybernetic fusion of human and machine. On the other hand, the bicycle is a time machine, compressing distances and accelerating movement. Moreover in its early years the bicycle was a marvel of new industrial technologies, a sign of a future of privatised, individual mobility, a sign of a technologically transformed society, but as it was superseded by the automobile and the motorbike it came increasingly to signify the past, evoking a slower, pre-industrial, non-urban past. The appeal of cycle touring in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the opportunity it afforded town and city-dwellers to travel to the countryside and immerse themselves in a rural environment apparently unaffected by the frantic progress of modern life, moving from one temporality to another. Bicycles allowed the rider variously to travel forwards and backwards in time. As my friend Brian Baker has written in the rich essay ‘Man-Machine’, the mechanism of the titular time machine in H.G. Wells’s 1895 novel is described in a way that makes clear that it is in fact a bicycle’, and so, ironically, there is nothing new in Lem’s chronocycle. However, what is interesting about Lem’s absurd contraptions is the economy with which they capture the subjective experience of cycling, reiterating the point that for all its mundanity, cycling is both a strangely mechanical activity – the repetitive operation of a machine – and also an activity rich with identifications and fantasy in which cycling from a town into the surrounding fields can involve an imaginary passage from the present to the past.

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This is a blog post I wrote for CeMore, Lancaster University’s Centre for Mobilities Research, on the relationship between early cinema and the bicycle, technologies that came into view almost simultaneously in the late 19th century.