Flatland

Author: Edwin A. Abbott

Type: Fiction, novel

Full title: Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

Published: 1884

I read it: December 2016

flatland

The world of Flatland exists on graph paper. The narrator who sums up the history is a square (as in an actual square, the shape), and therefore an educated middle class citizen. His society is strictly regimented according to “the divine origin of the aristocratic constitution of the States in Flatland.” It goes something like this: all women are merely straight lines. Up from that are the isosceles triangles, who are the working class. An equilateral triangle is better, and a square is a step up from that. Then the more sides the better: pentagon, hexagon, et cetera, and on up to the priest classes who have so many sides they are functionally circles. The only way to rise above your station is through evolving the family line to have more sides (because of this, the grandparents worship the grandchildren).

The immediate comparison that springs to mind is Utopia, although the descriptions of Flatland are presented by a citizen, not a visitor. It’s also apparent that Abbott is aiming for some sort of social commentary, although for the first half of the book it’s hard to know where he is trying to land. Does Abbott favor or mock the tightly structured society he describes? This is a society in which “the toleration of Irregularity is incompatible with the safety of the State.” Rebellions are extinguished and art is frowned upon, for fear of “the pollution of paint” and its “immoral, licentious, anarchical, and unscientific” nature. The most painful aspect for the modern reader is the position of women, with plenty of “Frailer Sex” references and the like. (Although the fact that the citizens live in constant trepidation that a woman can immediately stab anyone, and often accidentally, is amusing.)

Toward the end of Part I (“This World”) the square has a dream of the King of Lineland, who cannot comprehend anything other than the existence of points and lines. The square tries in vain to explain the dual dimensions of Flatland. This episode pretty much telegraphs the entire rest of the book. At the beginning of Part II (“Other Worlds”), it is “the 1999th year of our era” and the square is preparing for a new millennium. He has a visitor from Spaceland, who, you guessed it, exists in three dimensions. This sphere tries to enlighten the square, and the square, to his credit, eventually comes around after grappling with the mantra that the extra plane of reality exists “Upward, yet not Northward.” He eventually gets to go to Spaceland himself, to some alarm:

When I could find voice, I shrieked aloud in agony, “Either this is madness or it is Hell.” “It is neither,” calmly replied the voice of the Sphere, “it is Knowledge.”

Here it becomes quite plain that Abbott intends for us to question any reality handed to us. He does briefly address the subject of women when he has the sphere explain that “many of the best and wisest in Spaceland think more of your despised Straight Lines than of your belauded Circles.” The student even becomes more open-minded than the teacher, when he ponders the possibility of a fourth dimension. The sphere himself won’t follow his own logic: “The very idea of it is utterly inconceivable.”

This is a unique little book that I hadn’t heard of until I saw it on the Rock Paper Books site. The cover art (by Rutger Paulusse) sold me, evoking Escher along with the crystalline floating dimensions and cityscapes of a Lovecraft story. I could stare at it for ages. The lesson inside the cover may be a bit less revolutionary than when the book was published, although I like the mysterious use of the word “romance” in the subtitle. Romance about adventuring to new vistas? There are other worlds than these, and the lesson comes together to deliver a point.

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