A Flat Story of Many Dimensions

Physics and literature studies may not seem to have much in common, but an interesting aspect of both of them is how important perspective is. One of my favorite things to consider in literature is how a story might change depending on who’s narrating it, as well as how trustworthy or not a narrator might be. In a similar vein, a physics problem can change depending on who is experiencing versus witnessing some action.

I heard of the book, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A. Abbott, when I was studying English in college the first time, and I thought it sounded interesting. Then, when I went back to college, this time to study physics, I was reminded of the book and again thought it seemed like something I should read. Now, 15 years after first hearing of the book, I finally got around to reading it.

Flatland tells the story of a square, named A. Square, living in 2-dimensional space who is suddenly introduced to a cube and taken from his 2-dimensional world into the 3rd dimension. I really liked the way Abbott described the different dimensions. He also takes us on a trip to the 1st dimension and even to a point, each of which helps the reader “envision” what a higher dimension might be like for us. This is especially relevant to me because I have a book idea that involves a 4th dimension, and I found his descriptions incredibly helpful. The thing is, unless you’re planning to write a similar book, I’m not sure I’d recommend the story.

As interesting as the dimensions are, the book turned out to be much more of a satire than anything else. It mocks the social class systems of Victorian England, describing how difficult it is for the lower class, pointier shapes to rise up to the rank of circles. The more sides a shape has, the higher its status, and that’s simply a function of birth. Women are straight lines and thus the lowest class of citizenship. In fact, the horrible sexism is one of the things that bugged me the most about this book. I’m not sure if Abbott is mocking the extreme sexism of the time or if he truly had such a low opinion of women, but in either case, it detracted significantly from the story for me.

Abbott spent at least two-thirds of the book just describing the social structure of his society. It was interesting for a little while, but quickly got dull as he hammered the point home, over and over. I got it. There was a class system in Square’s society that was difficult to escape. I was reading the story for the mathematical aspect, and this satire just kept going and going. Even when we started exploring other dimensions, Abbott kept hammering home the different class systems experienced in each dimension.

Ultimately, I did really like the descriptions of the dimensions. It was insightful, I found myself looking around the world with a new perspective, and it was exceedingly helpful as far as considering what a fourth dimension might look like. But as far as recommending it for other people, I’m not sure I’d go that far. If you want a rather dry satire that mocks Victorian life, give it a try. If you want to consider life in another dimension, read the beginning, skim the middle, and read the end. If you just want a good escapist story that takes you to another world, I’d suggest skipping this book and finding something else instead.