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A romance of many dimensions

Perhaps one of the weirdest books you’ll ever read. Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, a tiny book written back in 1884, theorizes about inhabitants of a two dimensional world, drawing striking parallels with 19th century Victorian social hierarchy. What’s noteworthy is that it’s not just an allegory of a bygone era or an endless discussion on geometrical figures and their nuances, but a warning (in Alan Lightman’s thought-provoking foreword) for physicists and scientists, in a time riddled with scientific breakthroughs,  to be on guard against complacency and the tendency to rest on their laurels. Not to worship established wisdom as gospels of the ultimate truth, but instead ask questions that could lead to the discovery and validation of several more.

I like the premise of the book. Flatland challenges you to imagine a world where thickness is unheard of, where people exist in the likeness of geometrical figures on paper: triangles, squares, pentagons, and so on; much like shadows on the ground. The book is recorded as a first person narrative by A. Square, a distinguished Flatlander himself, giving us Spacelanders a perspective into his unimaginable world. Looking from above, for us Spacelanders, the two dimensional geography reveals a chaos of living, breathing geometry all around. But there’s method to this madness. If you look closer, as the author points out, you’ll notice people segregated in classes based on their shapes; priests who are perfect circles enjoy life at the apex, while women as straight lines compose the dregs of society. 

The social commentary is insightful to say the least, and invites your curiosity to study the finer points of Flatland’s day-to-day life and satires, to some extent, our own world. How people (lines, triangles, squares) there perceive and identify others (also lines, triangles, squares) when all they see is a flat line; how everyone adores symmetry of shape and abhors irregularity of one’s physical appearance. But that’s not all. If you’ll read the book, you’ll realize how the writer takes great effort to discuss at length the land’s physics and history, customs and beliefs, and reveals the philosophy of its inhabitants who appear to be self-content and lacking adventure. Where scientific and artistic excellence is taking a back seat and the minds are falling into decay. 

But all that changes with the appearance of a Spacelander! 

It’s a small book of hardly 100 pages, and one that I recommend to everyone who wants to take a break from their fantasy and non-fiction novels. It’s not a mathematical school book full of diagrams and jargon, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s a good read. Here’s the Project Gutenberg link to download a free ebook version.

Originally published: April 27, 2009

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