Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

Edwin Abbott Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884)
I've read nothing but good things about this novel - or I suppose novella given its brevity - many of them on the back cover, which promises wry humour and penetrating satire, a mind-expanding journey comparable to that of Swift's Gulliver, and as prophetic a science-fiction classic as the works of H.G. Wells. The main character is a sentient square inhabiting a two-dimensional realm who encounters the denizens of three, four, one, and no-dimensional spaces and thusly tries to get his head around it all. I suppose we've been spoiled, living at the arse end of the twentieth century and having grown up with either James Burke or Carl Sagan explaining this kind of thing by means of either computer animation or a snooker table; but I still have my doubts. My copy of Flatland is published by Signet Classics, but then I suppose there's no such imprint as Signet Adequates.

The prose is breezy and readable and stuffed with the sort of ornate phraseology which has self-published CreateSpace steampunk novelists coming in their pants - or issuing most tenaciously in their finest Sunday pantaloons if you prefer; but Flatland is essentially a novelisation of one of those curly and straight animations you used to see on Rainbow in the 1970s. The humour may indeed be wry, but the satire didn't strike me as particularly penetrating, and if you were expecting a sort of mathematical version of Gulliver's Travels, then you're likely to be seriously disappointed. Whilst not without its good points, albeit good points mainly communicating ideas now so commonplace that we've seen them turn up in episodes of Scooby Doo, Flatland is written by a Victorian school teacher and is about as much fun as you would expect given this pedigree. I assume the hierarchy of dangerous, presumably elliptical two-sided females, a triangular servant class, square gentlemen, and polygonal intellectuals is what the book's fans have identified as satire, but I don't actually see anything resembling commentary on the English class system so much as a pseudo-mathematical echo composed for the sake of chuckles. Similarly the subjugation of Flatland's females described on the back cover doesn't seem to be saying anything much about emancipation, and as for the supposed sex amongst consenting triangles, I guess I must have blinked and missed that one.

Flatland is a faintly amusing novelty, but let's not get carried away here. Just because something is old and a bit cranky, doesn't mean it's a work of genius.


  1. stole my bleedin title..

    1. I'm sure yours is the better book though, Dan.