Physics and mathematical fantasy today as we journey into the two-dimensional world of Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, as narrated by A. Square. Edwin A. Abbott’s (his middle name was Abbott too, we kid you not). It was first published in 1884 and proved to be something of a prescient work for the scientific community, if not an outright landmark.
21 years after the book was published, Einstein’s special relativity became a thing. A decade after that, the theory of relativity (which encompass that first one back there with general relativity) was published.
So why is this little novella relevant? Flatland was a speculative consideration on the nature of being which introduced to the inhabitants of a two-dimensional world a third dimension. Thusly, we must ask ourselves is our current perception of reality illusory? Are there other dimensions waiting to be explored? Let’s take a look.
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
This unique novella showcases life in a two-dimensional world, which is somewhat unthinkable for us perverts in the three-dimensional world. However, most of us have played something such as Super Mario Bros. 3 at some stage in our lives, so this is what we’ve all forced poor old Mario through on one of those exhilarating adventures.
If anything, this book is a scientific consideration on reality – it represents a moment in history when physics was about to make leaps and bounds.
Human understanding of the nature of existence went zooming forward a few decades after this little book was written, but Flatland is the moment in time when everything hadn’t quite connected and reality could really have gone off on a bizarre tangent.
The personable narrator, A. Square, introduces us to his bizarre world in the first half of the tale, showing us how his peers are able to make stuff out when all you can essentially see are a batch of lines.
Following a dream in which he visits a one-dimensional world, he’s promptly visited by a three-dimensional sphere. Utterly baffled, his entire world is turned upside down as he journeys to Spaceland (what we know as our reality).
Inspired, he returns to Flatland and attempts to rouse interest in what he’s seen, but is dismissed as an imbecile and ultimately disgraced in the eyes of his society.
Obviously, this sort of leaning doubles Flatland up as a parody of Victorian society, particularly where women are concerned. Back then, women were considered somewhat second rate and liable to hysterics if anything intellectually challenging veered in their general direction.
Whilst the likes of Virginia Woolf soon corrected this with polemics such as A Room of One’s Own, Abbott used dark humour to make his point about society’s anachronistic ways.
In the text, A. Square describes a social structure which is disturbingly elitist and sexist. As Alan Lightman explains in his introduction: “Everyone [in Flatland] aspires to having the highest number of sides.” He adds:
"Women are not even worthy of three sides. They are one-sided figures - straight lines, in other words - and they must be constantly avoided or handled gingerly so that their two extremely sharp ends will not puncture incautious males in the vicinity. Women talk too much and are so dumb that they aren't even aware of their wretched status at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Occasionally, they go on a berserk rampage and massacre hundreds of males, a practice that is accepted as keeping the population of the lower classes in check."
The class system is just as chaotic, with all concerned working hard to acquire a vast number of sides.
So isosceles, hexagons, and plenty of other shapes are left to battle it out for social supremacy, although their shapes do ensure square houses are banned due to often causing horrific deaths and other incidents. Truly, Flatland would be a peculiar place to live.
Flatland was largely ignored upon its release, kind of highlighting the point its author was making about his time.
Once Einstein’s theories were published (you can read Seven Brief Lessons on Physics to find out more about these), Abbot’s work resurfaced and began receiving recognition circa 1920. The author died aged 87 in 1926.
For such an innovative piece of work, it’s not surprising there have been numerous adaptations.
There was an animated film in 2007 (see the trailer above) which received generally favourable reviews – it was directed by Ladd Ehlinger Jr. (yeah, we’ve no idea there either). We’ve not watched it yet, but the trailer certainly looks endearing enough.
Flatland also occasionally receives other pop culture references. The cult cartoon series Futurama parodied the world briefly in one of its episodes in Season 8, in what was quite a clever depiction.
Although the series was in decline at the time and it seemed more of an easy gimmick.
However, it does indicate Flatland has an enduring quality to it which continues to inspire the world, and this is quite the achievement for any writer.