Friday 14 October 2011

Flatland by Edwin A Abbott

Flatland, subtitled A Romance of Many Dimensions, was first published in 1884. It is difficult to describe or draw parallels with this book, since as far as I'm aware it is unique, and it has maintained an almost hidden cult status ever since.

The nameless narrator lives on a world of two dimensions - a flat surface - in which all the inhabitants are geometrical shapes. The simplest are the women, who are straight Lines, next come Isosceles Triangles (the wider the angle, the higher the status). Equilateral Triangles are next up the social scale, followed by Squares (like the narrator) then Pentagons and Hexagons and so on, until the highest status of all - the Circle. It is every inhabitant's wish to improve the prospects of his male offspring by carefully choosing his Wife to ensure that their shapes become more regular or many-sided with each generation. Our Square narrator, for instance, has a Pentagon son and a Hexagon grandson. This element of the story is a satirical reference to the rigid social structures of the contemporary Victorian society, in which a high priority was given to trying to climb that social ladder from one generation to the next.

Our narrator has an unusually imaginative mind and has visions of other worlds, including a one-dimensional Lineland and even a zero-dimensional Pointland, and has fun with satirising the rigid assumptions held by the inhabitants of these lands, each believing that there is no world with more dimensions than their own. That also applies to his Flatland homeland, where it is heretical to suggest that there could ever be more than two dimensions. So he is greatly disturbed to be visited by a being who appears to be a Circle but keeps changing in size, something which cannot happen in Flatland. He gradually realises that the visitor is a Sphere from a three-dimensional world (of whom he can only see a two-dimensional "slice") and is led to an understanding of what such a world would be like. Inevitably, his discoveries get him into trouble with the Flatland authorities.

Flatland can't really be assessed in any conventional way, in terms of plot, characterisation or drama. It is more of a thought experiment than anything else - an intriguing and rather appealing one. Since it is only a novella of some 80 pages, it is easy enough to read and worth the effort for a unique experience.

1 comment:

Bill Garthright said...

It's been a long time since I read Flatland, Tony, but I think its cult status is well-deserved.

You're right, it's very imaginative.