Behrooz Parhami's Reviews > Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott
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This imaginative book is a rather short one (my Dover edition has 83 pages), but it contains much food for thought. The central theme is life and its perception in a 0D world or Pointland, a 1D world or Lineland, a 2D world or Flatland, and a 3D world or Spaceland, with references to even higher-dimensional worlds. The book’s old prose style makes it difficult to understand some of the concepts, but it is an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Ever since Einstein presented his theory of relativity, we have gotten used to thinking of 4D spacetime, with its extra dimension, that is, time, not quite the same as the other three dimensions. But beyond 4 dimensions, our intuition fails us. Contemplating life in lower-dimensional worlds could be useful for visualizing and understanding higher-dimensional worlds. When we read about the challenges of a denizen of Spaceland trying to make a Flatland creature understand the notion of the third dimension or “height,” we realize how limited our faculties are in visualizing more dimensions.

The bulk of the book is about Flatland, a 2D world holding various geometric life forms. Women are straight line segments, soldiers and lower classes are acute isosceles triangles, middle-class men are equilateral triangles, and so on; the higher the social class, the larger the number of sides, with the highest class, the priests, being circular or nearly-circular (they have so many sides that it is hard to tell them apart from perfect circles). Flatland houses are polygons with their “roofs” toward the north, where rain comes from. Everything is attracted toward the south, the analog of gravity in our 3D world.

A streak of misogyny runs through the narrative, which isn’t surprising, given the book’s original publication in the late 1800s and the author being a theologian. I could not ascertain whether the misogyny is tongue-in-cheek, meant to be humorous like many other aspects of the narrative, or there is a serious view of women as the “frail” sex [p. 12] that, nevertheless, have to be watched carefully for the tricks they may have up their sleeves, including the ability to harm others with their pointy ends and to make themselves nearly invisible. Elsewhere, we read about the scandals that might befall the upper classes if they were mistakenly thought to be women with “frivolous and unseemly conduct” [p. 30]. The narrator, a Spaceland man, talks about his wife “whose good sense far exceeds that of the average of her Sex” [p. 75] and about a particular explanation being so simple and straightforward “as to be patent even to the Female Sex” [p. 77].

The question of distinguishing different Flatland denizens, particularly friends from foes, in a world where everyone seems like a straight line-segment is discussed at length, as are the concepts of marriage, procreation, and so on. In fact, things get even eerier in Lineland, where everyone looks like a point (a woman). Even line segments of varying lengths (young men and men of different ages) would be indistinguishable from points in the absence of some other sensory capabilities, which are postulated. “[L]ife in Lineland must be deplorably dull. To see nothing but a Point! Not even to be able to contemplate a Straight Line! Nay, not even to know what a Straight Line is!” [p. 49] And in Pointland, everything is one and the same, giving rise to the King/God of Pointland who can never be rescued from his self-satisfaction. (Sounds familiar?)

The Flatland narrator takes it upon himself to preach the Gospel of Three Dimensions, something that gets him in deep trouble with the authorities! Eventually, he finds it safer to speak and write of Thoughtland, where taboo notions are viewed as figments of our imagination, rather than suggesting a concrete 3D land.

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Reading Progress

June 30, 2018 – Started Reading
July 3, 2018 – Shelved
July 3, 2018 – Finished Reading

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