A romance of many dimensions, says the subtitle to Flatland. It was written in the 1880s, and is out of copyright, so I’m linking to the Project Gutenburg free version. It’s a short read, much talked about by mathematicians. I am not a mathematician, but I’ve heard enough about it, and there’s even a movie with voices offered by a fellow Democrat for Life named Martin Sheen and fellow nerd lover – though somewhat hotter in a bikini – Kristin Bell.
I did notice that the movie has Ms. Bell voicing a hexagon, which is not in keeping with the book. It would surprise me to waste her on the way women are portrayed by Edwin A. Abbott in the written work; the movie crew didn’t, instead choosing to ignore the gender differences in the text. Since I haven’t seen the movie, I will comment only upon the book. Furthermore, I am not evaluating this book as an introduction to dimension and proportionality, a teaching tool. It’s good for that. Instead, I want to comment on the satire and story.
Sometimes, Mr. Abbott is funny or sweet. There’s humor in the visit to Point, a zero-dimensional structure who considers It the entire universe. All outside comments must come from Its thoughts. I thought of people who sometimes act almost as self absorbed as Point. I also thought of sweetness in the description of how the people of Lineland mate. “No, no, neighbourhood is needless for the union of hearts.” For them, it’s about hearing, and distance, and matching male voice with females; courtship can take many weeks, too, until the pure harmony of the marriage chorus is achieved.
On the other hand, in Flatland Women are mere lines – well, very thin parallelograms. They receive almost no schooling, must constantly make noise to prevent a figure from hitting them, and are stuck with just emotion. Each house has a special door for women, to avoid potential entry problems. This is not good. On the other hand, they can use their pointy ends to puncture almost any male figure, including their husbands, a strong inducement to fidelity.
That’s the major part of the satire here, the difference between social classes and genders. British society in the 19th century had strict social structure, where advancement could be made slowly, if at all. In Flatland, triangles can only improve their angles at 0.5 degrees per birth. Regular polygons get to advance faster, one side per generation, but still would take hundreds of years to reach the high dimension of “circles”. Even by British standards, that’s slow. The class system is strong; higher class people do not engage in touch recognition, and in most cases should not even be contacted. (It even holds today at the head of state level, as Michelle Obama caused a great deal of discussion about protocol.) To try to reach a higher class, promising children are often sent to special facilities to be broken and reset. The “Circular Neo-Therapeutic Gymnasium” kills nine out of ten, but apparently it’s worth it to the Flatland classes. To Democrats for Life like Mr. Sheen and myself, though, this would be anathema.
Another modern anathema would be the treatment of women, and I’m not surprised that this was removed from the movie. In Mr. Abbott’s book, women are considered to have lower intelligence to match their lower dimension. They are taught about emotions, with different language. This seems in line with the thoughts of the Victorian era, and its outward restraint against emotion. One might even see a little eugenic critique inside Flatland society, though I’m not sure about that.
The problem with the book, from a 2009 perspective, is that the satire doesn’t make sense. It’s no longer our satire. Of course I don’t like lower classes for women; I strongly prefer multidimensional females with curves. Of course I find such a strong caste system unlikeable. It’s easy to say that, now. Unlike other social critiques such as
Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, this satire has lost its salt, mostly. Thus, as a social critique, Flatland earns a 1 out of 5. The grade as a mathematical teaching tool would be much higher, if you’re looking for that.