Book reviews / Science Fiction

Book review: Flatland

It’s been a busy month, with most of my brain capacity taken up with PhD things. However, this evening I had the house to myself and so read through Edwin A Abbot’s Flatland. It’s a very short read, only about 120 pages.

Flatland was published in 1884 and the prejudices of the time shine through. The obviousness of this was perhaps aided by my PhD work which starts around that time. The discussions of class, women and moral uprightness all seemed appropriately Victorian. Women and the ‘lower classes’ have a particularly rough time of it in Flatland.


But as a thought experiment, it was really quite interesting. How would you explain three dimensions to a two dimensional character? Or two dimensions to a one dimensional character? The story is told through the perspective of a ‘perfectly respectable’ Square (slightly higher up the Flatland social hierarchy). After a dream about  visiting ‘Lineland’ (which is literally just a line of…lines), the Square is visited by a Sphere, who tells him (and then takes him) to the third dimension.

But what I found really interesting was how incredibly violent it was! I mean, people get destroyed or killed at the drop of a hat! As women are straight lines (not triangles, squares or otherwise), they occasionally just run through people (either by accident or on purpose). One massacre was entirely down to their ruthless efficiency in dismembering the shapes that inhabit the world. And yet, they don’t get to be literate or rational in Flatland (it felt very Victorian then).

Also, there seemed to be an entire tirade against universal suffrage, which was kind of hilarious. It was described through a part of Flatland history where everyone basically forgot how to recognise angles when they decided to apply colour to themselves. They were going to upend the entire Flatland hierarchy but ‘luckily’ this didn’t come to pass (and ended with the above mentioned massacre).

As well, there are lots of people getting arrested and arbitrarily imprisoned or those who were not of a regular shape being destroyed or put in asylums. There was a bit of a eugenic vibe to the whole thing – reducing the irregular shapes and isosceles triangles. Flatland does not have many civil rights or rule of law. Also, no one particularly seems to mind about everyone being killed randomly.

In appropriate Victorian manner, the relations between the sexes were not discussed! But how does a line and a square produce a hexagon (as you climb the social scale, you get more sides until you approach a circle.)  It was strange.

But anyway, it was really interesting. As a bonus, I can probably reference it in my dissertation, So yay for that.

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