Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions- Down the Mathematical Rabbithole

Written in 1884, “Flatland” is an obscure, oddball of a novel. At only 83 pages, it’s a very brief read that hardly qualifies as a novel based on length, but it is definitely a brainteaser that will slow you down to make you ponder a bit over the concepts. The author, an English clergyman named Edwin Abbott, wrote it less out of a desire to tell a fantastical story and moreso to explore mathematical theory (namely that of dimensions) and to comment on Victorian England hierarchal culture of the day.

The story revolves around a square, named A Square. Living in a two-dimensional world populated by various shapes (all men, as women are all simply straight lines). The more angles one has, and the more even they are, the higher one’s caste in society. Square himself is regarded as a well respected mathematician, with a solid status in society. After providing background information on the nature and history of Flatland itself (which reads more as a philosophical treatise than anything), Square delves into the “meat” of the book: his journey into the land of three dimensions.

This is not necessarily a book to read for a deep and moving storyline, or even a particularly well-done plot. As a novel, it isn’t written well. However, that’s not the inherent goal. It’s meant as a brainteaser to play with dimensional theory and question the Victorian social structure and in both regards it does very well. In spite of being remembered more for its mathematical aspect, its satirical commentary on social norms of the time stands as biting to this day, if being rather quite dry. A great excerpt from the book that helps articulate this point is during A Square’s opening chapters of narration explaining just how the world functions, specifically in this instance how they recognize each other “,It will be obvious, to every child in Spaceland who has touched the threshold of Geometrical Studies, that, if I can bring my eyes so that its glance may bisect an angle(A) of the approaching stranger, my view will lie as it were evenly between his two sides that are next to me (viz. CA and AB), so that I shall contemplate the two impartially, and both will appear of the same size.”

The general appeal of this book is certainly very particular, targeted towards both collectors of oddities and fans of mathematics. However, it is still an interesting, to say the least if you can get your hands on it. It might make you yawn a bit, but it’ll also make you think and wonder.

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Bradley Hopkins

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