“Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” – Book Review

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I could not believe how flat I found “Flatland”… at least in the beginning. This 19th century satirical novella is a wonderful depiction of the social shortcomings of the Victorian Era and a skilled mathematical introduction into the world of multi-dimensions, but regarding the writing style, I found it rather monotonous.

Literary, it’s a flop. Philosophically, a masterpiece. Psychologically, a nightmare.

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The book written by headmaster and theologian Edwin Abbott Abbott in 1884 precedes Einstein’s work on relativity and presents the world of multidimensional geometry through the eyes of a fictitious writer, A. Square, who is also the main character of the novella. A. Square is an inhabitant of Flatland, a world of two dimensions, where the more equal sides you have, the higher you are placed in the social hierarchy. Dwellers of Flatland are 2D geometrical shapes that range from the simplest (Women, who are straight lines, and Irregular Triangles who aspire to become Isosceles) to the most complex polygons and as high as perfect circles (Priests). Life in Flatland, though apparently dull, is a continuous struggle of achievement and survival.  If you are placed low in the social hierarchy, the only thing that can help you deal with this matter is the hope that your descendants will place higher. Usually, there’s an increase in one’s sides with every generation, if everything goes according to plan.

Women’s portrayal is outrageous, even for satire. Women in Flatland are not only the lowest of the life forms, a straight and deadly line, but they are uneducated, have no aspirations,  no opinions of their own,  not even long-term memory. Aside from carrying children, they are completely useless in this bi-dimensional land. I guess one needs an extra dimension to be able to perceive the complexity of the female sex and Abbott knew that. The Victorian Era is known for the way it treated women, their struggle for rights and recognition, but Abbott is emphasizing the female social position to catastrophic levels (they are beyond education and can kill with their sharp points at the slightest provocation or even as a result of a sneeze). They are emotional and lack reason.

Reason is a faculty of men and basically, of the multi-sided. The more sides, the better the cognitive capacities and easier the access to information. A. Square is a… well… square, and therefore he belongs to the middle class and is able to receive and pass education on, especially in mathematics.

It is this Flatlander who dares to think of his world and those of other dimensions (fewer than his at first – Lineland) and who is then introduced to the marvelous world of three-dimensions by an inhabitant of Spaceland (which is our world, in case you were wondering). A. Square, excited about the new perspective, starts dreaming about bigger and better worlds, and by better I mean dimension-wise. This is what triggers the main philosophical idea of the novel, that one should not limit his inner and outer horizons to the immediate reality that presents to him or her, but always be aware that there can be something more complex out there, that we may not even be able to comprehend with our senses and intellect, but which also, in special conditions, may be experienced and perceived, even though not at once understood. Considering the fact that Abbott was a theologian, his thesis may also be seen as supporting the idea of the supernatural or spiritual world – beings from other dimensions may interact with humans, but the latter are not sensorially or intellectually equipped to properly receive or understand this type of communication. Given that the year was 1884, theology and science were not necessarily considered separately and often merged in the lives of scholars. The novella’s present relevance, however, is linked mainly to the mathematical and satirical values.

The idea of elites willingly contributing to the cognitive and informational limitation of masses permeates the entire text. Therefore, spreading novel information in Flatland, especially about the three-dimensional world, is forbidden. Highest-ranking social figures, the Circles, have the information, but decide to keep the masses in the dark for millennia, thus assuring things in Flatland remain how they always were and they themselves keep their privileged position.

A. Square’s decision to propagate knowledge in Flatland, even in a disguised and apparently safe form in the beginning, that of an exercise of imagination, is what lands him in prison, from where he is telling his story to us, in the form of “Flatland”.

This first-person perspective of the novella adds to the dynamics of “Flatland”, an otherwise monotonous writing in most part. I am familiar with mathematical (geometrical) concepts, so for the first chapters I was only admiring Abbots skills as an educator who manages to teach basic geometry concepts to the rather uninitiated through analogies and metaphors,  but I was little entertained by anything else. It was the third part of the book that got my attention as I could be empathetic towards A. Square, a Free Thinker. Perhaps most Critical Thinkers can identify with his struggles in shedding light upon the un- or the little-known. This is the part that really made me appreciate “Flatland” and got me thinking about further analogies. And I believe that a book that makes you see new things or consider new perspectives or directly inspires your work, is a book worth reading. (I must warn you though that there are very few books that I would consider not worth reading).

For me, “Flatland” is a great gift wrapped in a dull paper. I encourage you to unwrap it and see what it holds for you.

If you are curious about “Flatland”, you can get a free electronic copy on Gutenberg.Org. If you decide to read it or have read it in the past, I would be glad to know your opinion.

Image Source: “Flatland” e-book, from Gutenberg.Org

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