Not all science fiction is about aliens and technology and the future. The best science fiction literature is about ideas. Big ideas. Ideas that change the thinking of those who read it. Edwin Abbott Abbott was a theologian who wrote mostly literary and educational works. He is best known for the novella, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimension. On the face of it, the narrator, A Square (who provides the book’s illustrations too), is Abbott’s mouthpiece as he discusses Victorian society. However, whether he meant it or not, he introduces the idea of the high concept work of fiction (and perhaps the very literal concept of thinking outside of the box).
My edition was the e-book version of the second and revised edition, freely available. However, the illustrations didn’t render correctly so I supplemented it with another free version from the Geometry Centre, which perhaps says a lot about the nature of the story.
The dedication begins the fiction:
The Inhabitants of SPACE IN GENERAL
And H. C. IN PARTICULAR
This Work is Dedicated
By a Humble Native of Flatland
In the Hope that
Even as he was Initiated into the Mysteries
Of THREE Dimensions
Having been previously conversant
With ONLY TWO
So the Citizens of that Celestial Region
May aspire yet higher and higher
To the Secrets of FOUR FIVE OR EVEN SIX Dimensions
To the Enlargement of THE IMAGINATION
And the possible Development
Of that most rare and excellent Gift of MODESTY
Among the Superior Races
Of SOLID HUMANITY
And there is a preface, again by a fictitious editor. The book is divided into 2 part; the first describing the world of Flatland, and the second describing the Square’s adventures in ‘other worlds’.
Flatland is, obviously, a two-dimensional world. Its inhabitants are geometric figures in a 2D plane. Women exist as lines, while men are all multi-sided beings, from a triangle to a circle. Our guide, the ‘humble’ Square, is a gentlemen. Social status is derived from both the number of sides and the perfectness of the polygon. A circle is therefore perfect and are the priest class. Hexagons are lower nobility, squares are doctors, lawyers and the like. An equilateral triangle are craftsman while isosceles triangles are soldiers and workers. The first portion of the book describes the society they all exist in, such as females having to cry out when walking as they might be seen as a point and may accidently stab men to death. Gender and class are distinguished using the ‘Art of Hearing’, the ‘Art of Feeling’ and the ‘Art of Sight Recognition’. There are many other aspects of society described by the Square, such as colour and class wars. Evolution is also described.
Our Square dreams of a visit to a one-dimensional land where there is a King, men and women, and children who are nothing more than ‘lustrous points’. He attempts to explain to the King that he is from a place with two dimensions, but the monarch hears none of it. When it is impossible to see beyond your realm, it is impossible to conceive of anything else.
Or is it? With his mind open, Square is visited by a 3D sphere. At first he acts like the 1D King and doesn’t believe the sphere’s declarations. He can’t perceive Spaceland. It is only after Square joins the sphere in Spaceland, he accepts the world is not as it seems. He then speculates on the possibility of a 4D world, but the sphere dismisses this as fancy. The Square then dreams again, this time of Pointland. The sole inhabitant is also the entire universe and thinks any communication is a thought from his own mind. These dreams and adventures open Square’s mind, but he fails to convince his fellows in Flatland of other dimensions and is imprisoned for his beliefs.
Very clever idea from Abbott. Not only does it explain geometry and satirise society, but is an example of opening up new dimensions (both literally and metaphorically) in fiction for perhaps the first time. Unfortunately, the concept of Flatland makes no sense at all and the book itself is tedious at best. It was popular at this time in history to call works of fiction romances. However, for the majority of Flatland, there is no story, and little romance by any definition of the word. For the first part, it reads (and I accept probably deliberately) as an academic treatise, reflecting Abbott’s usual writing style. There’s nothing wrong with this conceit, of course, as long as it is both interesting and moves the plot along nicely. Despite the fact that the start of section 11 suggests the story is about it begin, it doesn’t until section 13. Far too long to get going in such as short novella. Of course, our main protagonist does undergo a character progression once it does move into a traditional narrative. He broadens his mind, learns about the ‘universe’ and accepts other concepts, which is great. Just too little too late within the book.
There is a heavy social satire within Flatland too. There is a lot of class and gender divide. Sure it is of its time, but comments such as ‘delicate’ females, smaller doors for women, and ‘if a soldier is a wedge, a Woman’ is a needle’ suggest underlying sexism. Did Abbott actually believe women were inferior yet dangerous, or is he reflecting society? He presents very little in his own defence. Meanwhile, there is evidence that class divisions are criticised. Society is cruel and those with ideas are chastised and incarcerated. There is a lot of bigotry and the Square opens his mind while all those around him remain closed. There is evidence that intellectuals of the lower classes are routed out and murdered. The rules prefer the status quo. However, some males may look forward to improving their status in society – moving through the classes and producing male offspring of a higher rank, but women will always be lines. ‘Once a Woman, always a Woman’ Abbott writes and the Square speaks. It is a ‘Decree of Nature’. I take this as a negative view point of females. (Note, however, that as the Editor in this edition, Abbott reacts to this criticism, so he obviously felt that it needed answering at the time).
The descriptions of how the inhabitants of Flatland live make no sense. Indeed, there are times when Abbott writes sentences such as [there are a] ‘hundred other details of our physical existence I must pass over’. I suspect this is because he couldn’t logically justify them. Or even think of them. A single eye on a 2D polygon constructing a society that has religion, law, arts and such like just isn’t possible. It is unimaginable. The logic behind such an existence just doesn’t work. The tools required for this existence just aren’t feasible. Which takes Flatland away from being a true science fiction story and into the realms of fantasy.
The legacy of Flatland is more noteworthy than the story itself. Abbott thought about a fourth dimension before Einstein. Meanwhile, other scientists and artists have paid homage. I totally commend the concept of Flatland in both the satirical and conceptual sense. As a work of fiction, however, it falls some distance from the idea of what a good story should be. As with other works from the 1800s, for the most part it follows the pattern set by More’s Utopia. It describes a society rather than exists within it. Despite the wealth of literature in this time (from Frankenstein to Middlemarch, from The Woman in White to any of Dickens novels), the science fiction novel hasn’t progressed. But then Flatland isn’t a science fiction novel. It is a fantasy treatise in part with a small story element which has huge science fiction ideas.