Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott

Science fiction is a bit of a knotty topic for me, as I like some of but I’m a bit picky! In my twenties I did go through a phase of reading some ‘hard’ science fiction (alien battles and strange worlds) but if I’m honest I’m more attracted by the Star Trek / Doctor Who / fantasy and classic sci-fi type of work than the space army sort. I’ll happy read H.G. Wells and Douglas Adams but I’m not so comfortable with Asimov and Peter Hamilton!

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“Flatland”, therefore, is the kind of speculative fiction that falls into my remit: described as a “mathematical fantasy about life in a two-dimensional world”, it was first published in 1884. Abbott, according to Wikipedia, was an English schoolmaster and theologian and although he wrote many works, this is the one that’s still read today. I picked my copy up while passing through St. Pancras station recently (no, not on my way to Hogwarts!) and it’s a very pretty little black Penguin Classic.

“Flatland” is a place of only two dimensions, and the story is narrated by an anonymous Square. He describes his world thus: “Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it… and you will have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen.”

So far, so good. However, this world of flatness has a rigid social hierarchy, at the bottom of which are women (straight lines) and at the top of which are the Polygons (the more angles you have, the higher your status). Everything is controlled by this hierarchy, and no progress is possibly through society for certain of the shapes; for others, the right sort of marriage or dangerous surgery when young to produce more angles or more equal lines, can help them rise in status. Abbott helpfully provides little diagrammatic illustrations in places to help us understand his concepts.

The Square tells us of life in Flatland; how the shapes learn to move around without damaging each other; the danger of women who, being straight lines, can seriously injure or kill anyone with whom the come into contact; and how any attempts to conceive of a world outside this one are punishable by destruction. However, the Square has strange experiences to come; first he dreams of a Lineland where creatures of different lengths exist along a line and communicate by song; then, as the millennium turns, he is visited by a Sphere from a three-dimensional world who opens his eyes to the reality of things like cubes that are not flat. It seems that every millennium this kind of visit happens, and attempting to pass the information on about three dimensions will have severe consequences for the Square…

Of course, we are very much in the land of satire here! Abbott was using his analogies here to comment on the rigidity of Victoria society and the restrictions placed upon people at that time. Social definitions were all (you only need to read Dickens or the Brontes to see that) and “Flatland” throws this into sharp relief. Particularly apt is the attitude towards women – let’s not forget that the Brontes published their books initially under male pseudonyms, and many of their subjects were women restricted by the mores of the era).

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However, the book also has a scientific angle which is fascinating. It’s a little hard (for me, at least) to get your head around the concept of existing in one or two dimensions, as we’re so used to the three we have. Equally, the Square pushed the Sphere to reveal further secrets and consider if there is a fourth dimension – an idea that had been around for some time before Abbott was writing. The Sphere is a little resistant, but the point I think the books is ultimately making is that our perceptions and our understanding of the world are limited by our circumstances. This chimes in with the message in a James Burke programme I was watching on the BBC recently – everything is relative, there are no scientific absolutes and what we think at the moment may radically change as we discover more about ourselves and the universe around us. The Square struggles to hang onto the concept of three dimensions once he is back in Flatland – but once having been shown something new, he can never go back to his old way of thinking.

This was a fascinating little read, and I can see why it has survived as a classic. I’m no scientist, but I do like to watch popular science progs on TV, and “Flatland” still seemed relevant to our modern ways of thinking. Even if you haven’t got a scientific bent I still recommend Abbott’s book – it’ll certainly get you thinking about the space around you if nothing else! 🙂

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