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I WAS a mere lad when I first encountered the science-fiction fantasy Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. Its multi-dimensional worlds amused me; but its 19th-century verbosity challenged my typical teen Attention Deficit Disorder. (Wife Dottie offers her ADD cure: “You there, pay attention!”) And I’m sure I missed its biting satire of Victorian society that author Edwin Abbott Abbott intended.
More recently, I came upon an annotated version of this classic. And, wouldn’t you know, there’s a lot more to Flatland than I first recognized. One of these days, I’ll probably learn Moby-Dick isn’t just a whaling yarn. (See “In Praise of Annotated Editions,” http://wp.me/p2ETap-1Mq, for my love affair with this particular literary genre.)
Ian Stewart is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick in England. Prior to researching and assembling The Annotated Flatland, he paid homage in 2001 to Abbott’s 1884 original in a sci-fi fantasy of his own, Flatterland.
Citing the purpose of an annotated edition, Stewart quotes Martin Gardner, renowned for The Annotated Alice, who wrote, “I see no reason why annotators should not use their notes for saying anything they please if they think it will be of interest, or at least amusing.”
And so Stewart does with his annotations. They touch cogently, relevantly and entertainingly on everything from Shakespeare’s plays to Arthur Conon Doyle’s spiritualism.
The romance of Flatland is related by A. Square (maybe a pun on the author’s double-surname, “Abbott squared”). And, indeed, A. Square is a square, dwelling in a purely two-dimensional world as a sentient being consisting of four sides of equal length meeting in four right angles.
Inhabitants of Flatland use depth perception to distinguish among their various social classes. Males are polygons; the more sides, the more importance in society, with (near) circles being the Priest class.
Irregularity of sides is undesirable. (These constitute Flatland’s deformed class, often treated ruthlessly.)
Women are merely line segments, of no social importance whatsoever. In fact, viewed head-on, they’re mere points.
Flatland’s evolution results from a Law of Nature, in which male children gain one more side than their fathers. But not the lowly workers and soldiers: These isosceles triangles merely gain half-a-degree of their small angle with each generation.
Stewart’s annotations relate Flatland’s society to Victorian England’s, with the latter’s relatively stratified classes of men and the “weaker sex” subservience of women. When Flatland appeared in 1884, its readers (not unlike me as a lad) were entertained by the book’s dimensional whimsy, but seemingly ignored its social satire. In fact, some accused Abbott of misogyny, far off the mark as he was an early activist in bringing education to girls and women.
The second portion of Flatland describes the fourth dimension (a novelty in Victorian times). The last 26 pages of The Annotated Flatland is a concise and highly readable summary of “The Fourth Dimension in Mathematics,” starting with earth measuring (geo-metry), through codification in Euclid’s Elements, to the 19th century’s evolution of non-Euclidian geometry and the 20th century’s employment of this extended mathematics.
To me, this portion alone makes The Annotated Flatland worth reading. On the other hand, it’s good to recognize biting satire too. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015