“Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” by Edwin A. Abbott

I’ve been on a Victorian sci-fi kick lately, and after several recommendations decided to try “Flatland:  A Romance of Many Dimensions” by Edwin A. Abbott.

The book is unlike anything that I’ve ever read before.  It’s under a hundred pages, but that does not make the book a quick read.

“Flatland” is a satirical work that describes a two-dimensional universe with a rigid class structure.  Geometry and angles determine every aspect of life.  The more sides a person has, the more aristocratic, as wider angles denote intelligence.  Therefore, a circle is a priest, but a triangle is a common soldier.  Women are straight lines, and thus incapable of rational thought.

The narrator of the story is an average square who spends the first half of the book describing society in Flatland.  One day, a messenger from the third dimension visits the narrator and explains the limitations of a two-dimensional worldview.

Confession time:  I haven’t taken a math class since high school.  Math was the sort of subject where my experiences depended entirely on the ability of a teacher to explain the concepts in a way that I’d understand, whereas subjects like literature and writing were more intuitive to me.  Basically, my geometry is a bit rusty.  This is important because I was still able to understand this book, even if I had to reread certain parts to grasp it.  Abbott takes readers on a journey not just to another world, but to another dimension, and he does so in a very relatable way.  Of course, the story isn’t just about geometry and the theory of dimensions–it’s a satire of Victorian society which criticizes the rigid class structure and the lack of women’s rights.

I was surprised to learn that “Flatland” wasn’t particularly famous in its own era, but it experienced a surge of popularity after Einstein described time as the fourth dimension.

One piece of advice that I would offer–if you decide to read this on Kindle, the free versions don’t have the original illustrations.  Pay the extra $0.99 and get the version that contains them.  It’s worth it.  The narrator uses diagrams in order to explain some of the geometric concepts in the book and how they relate to Flatland’s society.  For me, they were invaluable.

I’m quite glad that I read this book.  It was delightfully bizarre and trippy.

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This book counts toward The 2012 Science Fiction Experience hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings, the Vintage SciFi Not-a-Challenge from The Little Red Reviewer and the Speculative Fiction Challenge hosted by Baffled Books.

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Categories: Fiction, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , , | 23 Comments

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23 thoughts on ““Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” by Edwin A. Abbott

  1. I always think of the math in Flatland as being relatively simple, but this is in part because Flatland was at one point recommended reading for Geometry students at my high school (before my time, but my older brother recommended it to me years later). Ultimately, it’s the conceptual stuff that makes it a weird, trippy read (but a good one at that!). The way the satire and the math fit together make this hands-down one of the cleverest, most interesting and most “whatthe–” books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

    • It was so unlike anything I’d ever read before, and I was surprised that the math parts were as easy to follow as they were. I’m also pleasantly surprised by how many people here have read it!

  2. I’ve never done so good with the Victorian satires, but when I was a teenager, and struggling with math, someone suggested I read Flatland to learn about geometry. The political satire was lost on teenage me, but I did begin to understand math (and how not to write dialog) a little bit better. I’ve had a copy of Flatland floating around my bookshelves ever since. and these days, I even get the satire!

    There have been some attempted sequels over the years, there was Sphereland (which was just OK), and Flatterland, by Ian Stewart, which is just wonderful. It reads a little more like a story of exploring the math of the universe, which sounds incredibly boring, but it’s written in a fun, readable style.

    • I wish I’d have read it when I was struggling with geometry. The way that it’s explained in the book makes so much sense. I was also amused because a few days after I finished it, I was watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory that referenced Flatland! I got all excited and was like “I read that!”

  3. I’ve seen the book in the store before and it always did look very trippy. Of course it also made my head swim thinking it might just be too mathematical to enjoy, math not being my forte.

    • Math has always been one of those intimidating/scary subjects for me, mostly because I still remember too many nights of frustration trying to understand my math homework in middle school and high school. Luckily, this book didn’t do that… it used just enough math to make its points, but it did so in a way that readers could understand. The illustrations were also a nice touch. I was shocked to find that not all of the e-book editions had them, especially as the author referenced them in the text.

  4. This one has been on my TBR list for about 20 years (seriously!). I’m glad to hear the math isn’t intimidating.

    • If I’d have looked at it for too long before downloading it, then I probably would have been too intimidated to start, but I needed something to start on my way home from work and several people had recommended it to me.

  5. I’ve tried to read this a couple of times but given up. You’ve inspired me to try again!

  6. To be honest this probably isn’t going to be one for me – I hate to admit it but my interest ebbed (massively) with the mention of geometry and maths – but I liked your review and I’m glad you enjoyed it.
    Lynn 😀

  7. Glad you liked Flatland… there are some follow on books if you can bear to read them. Probably the best non-maths one for the fourth spatial dimension exploration is “Spaceland” by Rudy Rucker – I kinda liked the idea of the way they would cheat in Vegas in order to get some much needed cash – or if you want to get a feel for what it could be like to live in a four-dimensional house, try Robert Heinlein’s short story “And He Built a Crooked House…”

  8. Richard

    HORAY! My harassment finally paided off. I read this book, while I was in high school back in 2007. This book is one of my favourites I’ve read and the reasons are very easy to know if you know me.

    I use to play with paper cut-outs of paper and have a town with the “people” being various shapes when I was a child. Reading this and seeing how the author wrote this this was being very easy to understand, that in my major requires me to know lots of math.

    I enjoyed the end the most.Mainly when the sphere denied the existence of the fourth dimension. Also how one projects a three-dimensional object in two dimensions was very accurate

    • It reminded me a bit of the scene in “A Wrinkle in Time” where they accidentally tesser to a flat world…

      I found the sphere denying the fourth dimension to be interesting, as he was supposed to represent an enlightened figure, but at the same time was incredibly narrow-minded.

  9. Geometry was probably one of my worst subjects in school. I’m worried this work will give me nightmares I haven’t had since high school…What’s a proof?

    • Haha… I tended to have a rough time at math as well. It didn’t help that the textbooks did a terrible job of explaining how to do the problems. It took me a couple chapters to get over it, but the satire in this book made it fun.

  10. I’m glad you liked it! I randomly picked it up a few years ago and read it in one sitting. I should go back and read it again.

  11. this is one of those books i’ve been meaning to read for a long time. i will now do so.

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