Friday, July 29, 2011

Out of your Plane you go!

Image from Wikipedia
Disclosure: I tried to read Flatland a while back but somehow stalled, despite quite liking it. I never really forgot about it but earlier this week I started reading it from the beginning and... whew. What a hilarious, interesting, confusing and bizarre little book. For the first time in a very long time, I found myself constantly highlighting paragraphs and taking notes (on Artemis, my Sony Reader). In part thanks to that extensive notetaking and the very nature of the book, this might be an almost-review scale ramble.  

***Profanity warning
***Also, some readers may consider the following (fake) summary of the book as a spoiler, so be warned.

To merely describe Flatland as a math book is only doing it a service. If someone had told me that Flatland had so much philosophy and satire, I'd have probably said, "Uhh, no thanks." But instead, I was pretty much given the following description of Flatland by someone who read the book for math class as a teen:
There's like, this line or something, and he's taken to the second dimension. At first he's like, "WHATTHEFUCKNOWAY" but then he realizes it's true, so he goes to tell his friends, "Hey, there's a second dimension!" and all the first dimension people are like "WHATTHEFUCKNOWAY". Then he tells the second dimension people, "Hey maybe there's a third dimension too!" and all the second dimension people are like, "WHATTHEFUCKNOWAY."
To say the least, this description had me sold. Then again, I won't pretend I wasn't disappointed by the lack of profanity (though "Fool! Madman! Irregular!" is pretty splendid in itself). But it turns out Flatland is a lot more than just a book about geometry (and the plot doesn't quite follow the above description, but that's irrelevant for all intents and purposes). It's a book bursting more with ideas, some mind-bending concepts, and the very concept of the mind-bending.

One of the first things I noticed was the notion of the "Irregular", essentially a significantly deformed perversion of the Flatland mentality. In a world where everyone is perfectly angular, where the number of sides you have indicate your social class, anyone "irregular" is:
from his birth scouted by his own parents, derided by his brothers and sisters, neglected by the domestics, scorned and suspected by society, and excluded from all posts of responsibility, trust and useful activity. His every movement is jealously watched by the police till he comes of age and presents himself for inspect; the he is either destroyed, if he is found to exceed the fixed margin of deviation, or else immured in a Government Office as a clerk of the seventh class[...]
This subclass intrigued me, particularly after it became obvious that Flatland has a strict and rigid hierarchy. Take, for instance, the position of women in Flatland. It's... not particularly good. Because women are straight lines, they are also sharp (and dangerous) points. Therefore, laws like this exist in Flatland:
Any Female, duly certified to be suffering from St. Vitus's Dance, fits, chronic cold accompanied by violent sneezing, or any disease necessitating involuntary motions, shall be instantly destroyed.
And then, sentiments like these exists:
[S]ince women are deficient in Reason but abundant in Emotion, they ought no longer to be considered as rational, nor receive any mental education. [...] My fear is that, with the best intentions, this policy has been carried so far as to react injuriously on the Male Sex.
So the problem isn't that women are no longer educated at all, but rather that it might harm men. At the end of the chapter, our narrator proposes reinstating education for women. But the reasoning is so that it may benefit men. So not so noble after all...

It's only in the second part of the book that the math takes over. In a lot of senses, it reminded me of A Wrinkle in Time, probably because it goes into trippy dimensional explanations. It made my head hurt, but it also made me think. Which is kind of the point. The end of the book is frustrating, in that I was frustrated (like our narrator) that the citizens of Flatland did not realize the truth about the dimensions. It's hard not to feel a sense of disappointment.

But this is only ever internal disappointment. Setting aside the questionable morals of the Flatland world, Flatland as a book is excellent. It's cool quasi sci-fi (or particularly mathematical fantasy), it's a fascinating social satire (at least, I hope it's satire... sometimes it's so seriously done it's hard to know...), and is full of interesting philosophical questions. It's an easy enough book to read (being very short and very plainly written), but it's bursting with complex ideas that are just as relevant and confusing today as they may have been in the 1880s.


  1. I bought three different versions of this for my Kindle, and my husband read it and concluded that it was a weird little book that I would likely love. I also had no idea that it has other aspects than the math, and think that that makes it a lot more likely that I will pick this one up at some point and give it a go. This was a terrific review, by the way, and it sounds like it was a really fun read!

  2. Hahahaha, that's the best book synopsis ever. If someone had given me that synopsis I would have read it much more promptly than I am currently reading it, which is to say, it's on my list but nowhere near the top. :p

  3. I love the sound of this book! It sounds like it was written just for me!


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