Friday, December 19, 2008

Book Review: Flatland

While this intent wasn't really made clear the last time around, I fully meant for Book Review to become a regular feature, every time I finished a, you know, book. But that hasn't happened, and my opinion of all literature read between November till now must go sadly unrecorded in the annals of history.

Luckily, that's not the case for Flatland.

Flatland. By Edwin A. Abbott. The edition I read was the second edition, published in1884--actually, an electronic facsimile of the second edition, published in 1884, but let's not split hairs--and it's generally considered one of the earlier predecessors of science fiction. The plot--well, it's not really a plot, for starters. More like a concept. The concept is that a 2-dimensional being--a square, as it turns out--becomes aware of his nature of a 2-D being and attempts to explain himself and his world to the 3-D people.

The first half of the book is a description of the 2-D society, and the second half tells of the square's encounters in Lineland, No Dimensions, and Space. The first half is focused on the culture that results from a flat world, and that's really my favorite type of sci-fi: one high concept, then a careful consideration of how that change influences people, on macro and micro levels.

But while Flatland fulfills the basic criteria of a modern sci-fi story, it's very much a work of its own era. It reads a lot like an H. G. Wells novel, if that's a style you're familiar with. But there's no real plot, per se, and no overarching story; it's just the square character reciting what happened to him, in increasing fervour. I'm not really familiar enough with 19th century literature to know how typical a protagonist the square is. All right, obviously, he's not very typical, since he's, you know, a square, but he's got a male-dominated, upper-class entitled sort of attitude to him, and I'm not sure how much of that attitude Abbott is including to reflect ourselves in Flatland, and how much he just thinks that's what people are like.

There's some interesting stuff with the intersect between mathematics and theology, and I'm wondering how deliberate the inclusion of the millenial stuff is. (The square receives his vision on year 2000, in their Flatland timeline.) I also liked that Abbott switches from narrative to dialogue when the square is confronted with a sphere; it emphasizes the way the square has lost all sense of agency. It's super short, and can easily be squeezed into a single afternoon. And while there's nothing revolutionary to it, as an earlier pioneering work of science fiction, Flatland is actually more interesting in terms of high concept than a lot of the stuff people like Wells and Stoker were putting out in the general time. So, if you've got an afternoon to kill and a mild taste for geometry, give it a try.

Later Days.

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