Choose Your Own Advent, Day 13: Flatland

Flatland, Edwin A. AbbottChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Flatland
Author: Edwin A. Abbott
Year: 1884

Every author who sets pen to page must accomplish at least one basic thing: they must describe their characters and their settings well enough that readers will buy into them.

Sure, they’re writing fiction, but it still has to be understandable, recognizable, identifiable fiction. There’s a reason one novel might be dismissed as “unrealistic” while another–with extremely similar subject matter–might be embraced. They may both describe equally unreal things (they’re fiction, after all) but one of them described those unreal things more effectively, so that they no longer felt unreal.

And that’s what readers and critics are actually saying when they call novels unrealistic, unbelievable, or any number of things that shouldn’t actually function as criticism of a story an author invented wholecloth. No…what they’re really saying is that the author didn’t succeed in describing these things effectively. It’s not a failure of realism; it’s a failure of communication.

This applies to stories as grounded as, say, ones about a guy walking around Dublin all day or ones about families getting together for one last Thanksgiving in the same house, so you can imagine how much more of a challenge was faced by Edwin A. Abbott when he wrote Flatland. He didn’t just have to convince us that his characters were doing what he said they were doing…he had to convince us that other dimensions existed, and help us to actually visualize what they might be like.

Flatland is fiction, and fairly good fiction, but it’s also a longform thought exercise. (Well, it’s two longform thought exercises, but we’ll come to that.) It’s a work of science fiction written before that genre was anywhere near as well established as it is today. When Abbott decided to write about other dimensions–dimensions beyond our current experience–he was working in largely uncharted territory. He didn’t just have to describe it; he had to invent a way in which to describe it.

And he did so brilliantly. He described a hypothetical fourth dimension by describing, instead, a very observable second dimension. Abbott wishes us to look outward, and he does so by teaching us to look inward.

Flatland is the story of A. Square, an actual square…a two-dimensional figure who receives a visit from a sphere. Poor A. Square then has to figure out how to understand a dimension he cannot observe and has never even imagined could exist: the completely hypothetical and totally impossible third dimension.

A. Square’s awakening–his gradually dawning but always incomplete understanding of what a third dimension could possibly be like–is meant to trigger a concurrent awakening in the reader. If a two-dimensional being were to successfully visualize a third dimension, what intellectual tools would he need in order to do so? What language could we use to explain it to him? What metaphors would be helpful, and what would only confuse him?

It’s a valid thought exercise, because we can approach it with knowledge we already have. We know the third dimension. We’ve lived every moment of our lives processing it. Therefore, once again, our problem in this thought exercise isn’t whether something is real or not…it’s a problem of communication.

And once we solve that problem…once we can make a square understand a sphere…

…well, isn’t it our job as occupants of this third dimension to begin pondering a fourth? A fifth? What would those look like? What would our three-dimensional limitations then mean?

Flatland does a great job of making the reader feel limited. As much as we can laugh at the struggles of the square it’s impossible to come away without feeling like we’d struggle as well to understand a larger truth. Because…well…isn’t there a larger truth? The square certainly didn’t think so, and for much of the book refuses to even consider the possibility that there is more to the universe that he can’t observe. Are we foolish for refusing similar things in a similar way?

The answer, Flatland conclusively assures is, is that we are.

A. Square learns of his two-dimensional limitations when the sphere sweeps him away to Lineland (a land of one dimension) and Pointland (a land of no dimensions), in which he encounters occupants who cannot (and will not) process the possible existence of a second dimension…while the square itself cannot and will not process the possible existence of a third. Readers will necessarily come to wonder if they’re nearly as barren of imagination…not to mention limited in their intellectual abilities.

The point doesn’t think he’s wrong for dismissing the possible existence of a line. The line doesn’t think he’s wrong for dismissing the possible existence of a square. The square doesn’t think he’s wrong for dismissing the possible existence of a sphere.

What are you dismissing?

Flatland is great science fiction, in the sense that it expands your capacity for viewing the world in which you actually live. It’s fiction, but its ideas are meant to clear the filters from our reality. It doesn’t ask us to change our ideas of how the universe works…it asks to question what the universe is. The fact that it succeeds, in under 100 pages no less, is nothing short of miraculous.

What’s more…that’s not all it does. Around half of the book asks us to think dimensionally, but the other half asks us to think socially. This is an interesting side effect of Abbott having to describe his settings and characters well enough that we’ll understand. After all…a society of two dimensional objects is easy enough to visualize, but not easy to understand in a functional sense.

And so Abbott tells us about the history of Flatland, and it’s actually here that his writing is at its best and most narratively engaging. He teaches us of Flatland’s caste system. Its social order. Its willingness to push back against–and, if necessary, destroy–artists and free thinkers and those who question the way things are. The way things have always been done. The way, you know, those in power would prefer us to exist.

Fortunately that section’s just for fun, and isn’t meant to expand our capacity for viewing the world in which we live at all.

3 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Advent, Day 13: Flatland”

  1. I love Flatland, one of my all time favorite books of all time. I wrote an (unfinished) musical based on Flatland, I should send you some of the files!
    There are some interesting spinoffs of this book out there, one I highly recommend if you haven’t read it is FLATTERLAND by Ian Stewart. Hooray for Flatland!

    1. I have not read any of the sequels! I have indeed noticed that there are many, which I don’t find surprising at all. It’s difficult to read Flatland and NOT brainstorm ideas for what to discuss next. I’ll check it out!

      1. I would describe Flatterland by Ian Stewart as more of a non-fiction book couched as fiction than the other way around, but there is one plot point in particular that is really a beautiful twist. Ian Stewart also wrote commentary for The Annotated Flatland. Really great stuff!

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