Book Review – Flatland – “Upward, not Northward”

Flatland coverage page
Image: Flatland cover page, in the public domain, from *EC85 Ab264 884f Houghton Library, Harvard University

A book that’s been on my reading list for quite some time was ‘Flatland’ by Edwin A. Abbott. Published in 1884, it’s available as ePub on Project Gutenberg, unless you live in Germany and don’t have a VPN to get around them blocking their library for Germany. I got interested in Flatland because I heard several times that it is an interesting story of how a two dimensional being that exists as a square and living in Flatland is introduced to the third dimension by a sphere. Perhaps, I thought, I could learn something about being limited to three dimensions and how to approach a 4th dimension!?

The Story Line

In the story, the two dimensional square is not only taken to Spaceland by the three dimensional being, but he also jumps into Lineland and tries to explain the nature of the second dimension to the one dimensional beings there (i.e. the lines). The book even ventures into Pointland, the land of 0 dimensions in which only a single being exists that can only communicate with itself and for which it is inconceivable that there is more than one being in the universe. What is common in all lands is that the beings living there outright reject and ban thoughts that there might be another dimension. In the story the square is the only being that accepts and embraces the idea of additional dimensions and when he starts thinking about beings in further dimensions (i.e. the 4th dimension and up) it comes hardly as a surprise that he angers the 3 dimensional being. Ever heard of a Tesseract? No? Then let Carl Sagan explain it to you, based on Flatland!

A Mirror of Victorian Society

Being an engineer I started to read the book from a scientific angle (pun intended, read the book and you know what I mean). While reading it, I thought, gee, this is quite an anti-feministic book, the class system the beings live in is also weird and the ‘crimes’ for which beings there are imprisoned or even executed are literally out of this world. At some point I thought I needed to read up on this a bit more and it turns out that the book, apart from its multi-dimensional story is a social satire on Victorian society in the 19th century, the time it was written. Have a look at Wikipedia for more details on this.

A fun read, fully recommended!

One thought on “Book Review – Flatland – “Upward, not Northward””

  1. We humans actually experience 4 dimensions: 3 space dimensions, 1 time dimension, and we only see time in one direction, towards the future. But it is easy to imagine a second time dimension perpendicular to the dimension we observe, which would simplify explaining some physics experiments of the past 10 years that appear to demonstrate faster than light travel (faster than light travel isn’t happening; the answer could be another time dimension).

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