Flatland

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“Flatland – A Romance of Many Dimensions” by Edwin A. Abbott is one of the strangest books I’ve read to date. It’s also an old book from 1884, but I only recently learnt about it in an article about the move “Interstellar”.

When it first was published the author used the pseudonym “A Square”. It’s a rather short book of — depending on publication — a bit more than 100 pages. In the first third of the book the square describes how life looks like in Flatland, which is a world of two dimensions.

The inhabitants of Flatland live in strict hierarchies. The circles are at the top and triangles with non-equal sides are at the bottom. Even below them in the hierarchy are the lines, which are the women of Flatland, who are said to be brainless because they have no interior. Many of those hierarchical descriptions are strange to us now and the low regard of women seems outrageous, but apparently it reflects the situation as it was at the time the book was written.

More interesting than the hierarchies is the way the inhabitants of Flatland live. As they live in a world of two dimensions, a square that meets a pentagon doesn’t see that it meets a pentagon. It only sees a line. Because conveniently there is always some kind of fog in Flatland, the line has different levels of brightness and those higher in the hierarchies can infer from those patterns what they are seeing. Those of lower positions must feel each other to recognize the angles of the other inhabitant.

So that’s really strange, but the square also visits Lineland, which is a world of one dimension, and Pointland, which is one of no dimensions.

But actually the core of the book is when a sphere from Spaceland visits the square and tries to tell it about it’s own world of three dimensions. That’s really quite a bit of an undertaking. It’s probably as hard as if someone from a world of four dimensions would try to explain that to us.

So the connection to “Interstellar” is this difficulty of grasping a higher dimensionality than the one we are living in. The iPad-app “The Fourth Dimension” does an amazingly good job of explaining the geometrical aspects of the fourth dimension in terms of the three we are acquainted with, by the way.

But the book is more than a treatise on different levels of dimensionality. It also shows how hard it is to accept new ideas and facts and how those who try to convey them are often faced with hardships.

There is no real story or adventure in this book. There’s no red thread that will captivate you from the start till the end, but just coming up with those ideas about Flatland, Spaceland and the others is mind blowing.

So while not for great storytelling, this books gets full marks for inventiveness.