Edwin A. Abbott
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884)
I must admit some reticence towards this book. I had read only a summary of it and was uncertain how a novel told from the point of view of a square could possibly work. I think I might have been expecting twee, or a work flawed and essentially doomed by its concept. It is much to Abbott’s credit that Flatland works well, at times exceptionally well.
I feel that the first few chapters are too expository – a matter unavoidable as Abbott does have to set up an entire world completely alien to his readers – and does not truly come alive until our narrator, A Square, begins to discuss the colour revolution. It is here that I expected the novel to take one tack – with the introduction of colour into their world, the flatlanders would become receptive to the ideas of a third dimension – so was gladly surprised when Abbott began to parallel his own Victorian society through the flatlanders prohibiting such discussions as damaging to all.
Square proves an increasingly interesting narrator. There is a moment when he is speaking with a point and lauding over him his knowledge of another dimension, and this moment is wonderfully replayed when the Sphere first approached Square and Square refuses to believe. This wonderfully droll relationship is finally inverted when Square proves to be more completely self-aware when he postulates of a fourth, maybe even fifth dimensions.
Abbott is very good at using abstract ideas to explore such complex ideas as dimensionality, class structure, and sexual inequality. Not always is he entirely successful. As he indicates in his preface to the second edition many first readers accused him of being disparaging towards women (there is a review in the journal Nature which speculated that the Square must have “suffered a disappointment at the hands of a lady” (from Rosemary Jann’s introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition)). However, Abbott dodges this bullet nicely in the preface where he indicates that Square “writing as a Historian, he has identified himself (perhaps too closely) with the views generally adopted by Flatland.” So Square needed to express those thoughts to best illustrate the life-altering power of learning of a third dimension. Abbott, of course, cannot help but twist the knife a little deeper. He continues, “and (as he has been informed) even by Spaceland, Historians; in whose pages (until very recent times) the destinies of Women and of the masses of mankind have seldom been deemed worthy of mention and never of careful consideration.”
It is a telling point that Flatland is a novel that continues to transfix when one learns that there have been numerous ‘sequels’ or ‘reimagining’s’ of Flatland by at least five other writers.
Overall I felt that Flatland was interesting exercise in science fiction, and a novel whose slim volume betrays the depth of idea and thought within it.
As a somewhat unconnected comment, I wish to respond to Jasper Fforde who asserts in his Thursday Next novel The Well of Lost Plots that the writing of Flatland used up the “last [pure] original idea”. I think Fforde here is being a typical Sphere – he cannot see the next original idea because he believes his existence is the apex of reality.
As Kobo Abe’s two novels (The Woman of the Dunes and The Face of Another) from the Penguin Modern Classics range are unavailable to me at this time I shall have to, for the moment, miss them out. I shall also return with a review of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang shortly.
The next work I shall be looking at is The Letters of Abelard and Heloise.