Wednesday, June 1, 2011

FLATLAND by Edwin A. Abbott

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions is an 1884 novella written and illustrated by Edwin A. Abbott. Here, a square that lives in a two-dimensional world relates his experiences there along with his travels in one- and three-dimensional worlds.

The social classes of the country of Flatland are described in such a way as to lampoon the Victorian social hierarchy. Every inhabitant of Flatland is devoted to climbing the social ladder; order is prized more than liberty; women belong to a lower class of their own. Abbott here is not particularly subtle in his criticisms, and one must imagine that the narrow thinkers that accused Abbott of misogyny really must not have been paying very close attention (these are the nineteenth-century analogs of people who think Stephen Colbert is really a conservative).

This dated aspect of the tale may not have particular relevance for a modern audience, but Flatland still has plenty of value. Abbott’s one- and two-dimensional worlds are impressively imaginative and quite well thought-out. Flatland is immersive, and along the way, Abbott manages to work in a number of profound thoughts on existence.

Flatland’s lasting legacy is its discussion of dimensions. Just as Abbott takes the reader through the two-dimensional square’s travails in comprehending a third dimension, so the reader is challenged to imagine a fourth. And Abbott does an excellent job of this, whether one considers this fourth dimension as time (as per general relativity) or an extra aspect of space (this is quite a bit harder to imagine). It also works if you consider the tale an allegory for God and the spiritual realm (Abbott was a rather prodigious theologian), which is not by any means a stretch given the “preaching” done in the story. In any case, it’s marvelously thought-provoking.

On the whole, Flatland is a well-imagined, well-reasoned, stimulating work.