Saturday, 16 October 2010


"I call our world Flatline, not because we call it so, but to make it's nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in Space..."

Edition Notes; Flatland, by Edwin A.Abbott, 1884, Oxford World's Classics (Oxford University Press) 2006 reissued 2008 - £6.99 ISBN 978-0-19-953750-1

Heard of it? No, me neither.

This - part religious tract, part social satire, part almighty mathematical mind-fuck - is one of the weirdest, most worthwhile books I never knew existed.

Our hero - if you can call him that - is a square. No, I mean it. Square. Four sides, four right-angles corners, occasionally mistaken for a semi-un-pronouncable Japanese character. Square.

He lives on a flat plane, his sons are pentagons, his grandsons hexagons, her servants triangles and his wife and daughter straight lines. Flatland is colourless, two dimensional, stratified by class (Denoted by the number and regularity of angles), absurdly sexist, classist, and pretty much any other 'ist' you care to throw at it, and completely oblivious of any dimensions beyond the two they exist in.

The first half of the book is a description of Flatland and a few brief snippets from it's history - principally the event known as the Colour Revolution. It details natural progression or evolution (The son of a Square is a Pentagon, the son of a Pentagon a Hexagon, and so on and so forth, along with a relative 'natural' increase of intelligence and social status), the plight of the lower classes (Isosceles triangles of angles as small as five to fifteen degrees are considered so worthless that they're used as teaching aids in geometry, and it's generally considered to be more cost effective to merely replace them every month or so as they die off rather than feed them), the role and state of women (I'm going to actually give this a whole paragraph to itself) and the fine arts of discerning what kind of shape another person is ('Feeling' and 'Sight Recognition'). I'll admit that that final one gets a tad tedious, but overall it's hilarious and disturbing in equal measure.

Hilarious and disturbing. For me, the biggest hitter in this category was the section on women. In a world where your status is determined by your number and regularity of angles, women are straight lines - and thus the lowest of the low. They're rarely educated, considered to be deficient in reason, emotional, irrational, and boasting exceptionally short memories. They're also very, very pointy and almost invisible, which makes them potentially deadly to their menfolk. For this reason, houses have separate doors for women, and at all times in public a woman must sway from side to side and utter a 'peace cry'.

This was written in 1884. The Victorian period was the pinnacle of fabulous clothes and utterly moronic ideas about women, and often it's hard to remember that there were people saying "Look, you guys, this is retarded." So retarded that it's expounded by two dimensional objects. I take my hat off to you, Mr Abbott, for some fabulous satire. It made me happy.

Lineland and Spaceland
The second half of the book is the actual 'story', which involves our Square encountering different planes of existence - literally. Firstly he tries to convince the King of Lineland - a single planed universe - as to the existence of two dimensions and fails miserably, and then encounters a Sphere, who attempts to reveal to him the mysteries of the third dimension, and fails miserably until he is physically yanked into three dimensional space. Unfortunately, he then goes on to theorise as to the existence of the fourth, fifth, sixth etcetera dimensions, and the Sphere gets pissed off and kicks him back into Flatland.

This is the point where you can tell that Abbott is a clergyman as well as a mathematician - and can I just say how nice that is? I'm so fed up with science and religion being at each other's throats. It's nice to go back to the Victorian period where men of science and men of religion were often the same men and all interested in the existence of extra dimensions. It gets a bit starry-eyed convert over the whole thing, and the language definitely errs towards the 'religious convert' rather than 'geometric mathematician' at this point - more interesting to read, but still a tad... enthusiastic - but overall, although I found the social satire part of the book more fascinating, this part did make my brain warp on itself trying to conceive of exactly where I was putting this fourth dimension.

The Ending
Is depressing. Nobody believes the Square, he gets locked up, and sits around writing this book and trying to remember what Spaceland looked like. If you can't read a book with a sad ending - or a lack of a conclusive ending, I personally find you repulsive and pathetic, but you might want to give this one a miss.

If the book has a failing, it gets a tad too maths heavy in places. Usually only for a paragraph or two, at worst, but because the language used is old fashioned and it assumes a Victorian knowledge of geometry (Which is actually pretty bloody extensive) if you're not into maths, it's potentially easy to get bogged down. I, personally, love maths in a freakish, geeky way, and read a lot of Victorian literature so I'm fairly familiar with the kind of language used, and even then it was occasionally a little confusing. I glossed over those bits. My edition did have the original diagrams, which was quite helpful.

Science and Religion
It's not actually that religious - or at least, it was written at a time before the frenzied wolverine pit which is the modern God or No God debate, and subsequently has an IQ of over 27. Don't expect it to reaffirm or disavow anyone's faith. In actual fact, the word 'faith' is really only used once - that I can remember - which is in the prologue, which was added in the second edition. You can read this as a dialogue about God OR a dialogue about the wonders of science, or you can read it as it was probably originally intended, which is both. At the same time. I like that.

I am really - REALLY - glad I read this. It's one crazy piece of work, but it's short and it's very entertaining and it's clever and it blew my mind. I think this is pretty much exactly what I want from a book.

Have I mentioned recently how much I love the Oxford World's Classics? Good lord, how I love them. The very no nonsense covers bely the fact that they have more notes and extra information than any other edition I've ever found, and they're cheap(ish. In comparison. To others). Flatland comes with an author biography, timeline, introduction to the text, bibliography, detailed analytical and  textual notes. Half the book - to be fair, it is a slim volume, but still - is notes and half is the actual text. It can be frustrating to get forty-odd pages in before starting the actual BOOK, but I personally really like having the extra information.

Next Time
I'm getting the hang of this two weeks thing, and I'm cheating like a mad thing by following up one short book with one (Maybe two) short stories. I'll be back in about two weeks - I'm going to try and get this one off before I head off to Expo over the Hallowe'en weekend - with Akutagawa Ryunosuke's Rashomon - or maybe In A Grove, or maybe both, I'm not sure, they're short and plus, I can start talking Film. Hurrah, Film.

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