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Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions is an 1884 satirical novella by the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott. Writing pseudonymously as "A Square", the book used the fictional two-dimensional world of Flatland to comment on the hierarchy of Victorian culture, but the novella's more enduring contribution is its examination of dimensions.
Several films have been made from the story, including the feature film Flatland(2007). Other efforts have been short or experimental films, including one narrated by Dudley Moore and the short films Flatland: The Movie (2007) andFlatland 2: Sphereland starring Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell.
The story describes a two-dimensional world occupied by geometric figures, whereof women are simple line-segments, while men are polygons with various numbers of sides. The narrator is a square, a member of the caste of gentlemen and professionals, who guides the readers through some of the implications of life in two dimensions. The Square dreams about a visit to a one-dimensional world (Lineland) inhabited by "lustrous points", and attempts to convince the realm's monarch of a second dimension; but is unable to do so. He is himself visited by a three-dimensional sphere, which he cannot comprehend until he sees Spaceland (a tridimensional world) for himself. This Sphere visits Flatland at the turn of each millennium to introduce a new apostle to the idea of a third dimension in the hopes of eventually educating the population of Flatland. From the safety of Spaceland, they are able to observe the leaders of Flatland secretly acknowledging the existence of the sphere and prescribing the silencing of anyone found preaching the truth of Spaceland and the third dimension. After this proclamation is made, many witnesses are massacred or imprisoned (according to caste).
After the Square's mind is opened to new dimensions, he tries to convince the Sphere of the theoretical possibility of the existence of a fourth (and fifth, and sixth ...) spatial dimension; but the Sphere returns his student to Flatland in disgrace.
The Square then has a dream in which the Sphere visits him again, this time to introduce him to Pointland, whereof the point (sole inhabitant, monarch, and universe in one) perceives any communication as a thought originating in his own mind (cf.Solipsism):
The Square recognizes the identity of the ignorance of the monarchs of Pointland and Lineland with his own (and the Sphere's) previous ignorance of the existence of higher dimensions. Once returned to Flatland, the Square cannot convince anyone of Spaceland's existence, especially after official decrees are announced that anyone preaching the existence of three dimensions will be imprisoned (or executed, depending on caste). Eventually the Square himself is imprisoned for just this reason.
Men are portrayed as polygons whose social status is determined by their regularity and the number of their sides, with a Circle considered the "perfect" shape. On the other hand, females consist only of lines and are required by law to sound a "peace-cry" as they walk, lest she be mistaken face-to-face for a point. The Square evinces accounts of cases where women have accidentally or deliberately stabbed men to death, as evidence of the need for separate doors for women and men in buildings.
In the world of Flatland, classes are distinguished by the "Art of Hearing", the "Art of Feeling", and the "Art of Sight Recognition". Classes can be distinguished by the sound of one's voice, but the lower classes have more developed vocal organs, enabling them to feign the voice of a polygon or even a circle. Feeling, practised by the lower classes and women, determines the configuration of a person by feeling one of its angles. The "Art of Sight Recognition", practised by the upper classes, is aided by "Fog", which allows an observer to determine the depth of an object. With this, polygons with sharp angles relative to the observer will fade more rapidly than polygons with more gradual angles. Colour of any kind is banned in Flatland after Isosceles workers painted themselves to impersonate noble Polygons. The Square describes these events, and the ensuing class war at length.
The population of Flatland can "evolve" through the "Law of Nature", which states: "a male child shall have one more side than his father, so that each generation shall rise (as a rule) one step in the scale of development and nobility. Thus the son of a Square is a Pentagon, the son of a Pentagon, a Hexagon; and so on".
This rule is not the case when dealing with isosceles triangles (Soldiers and Workmen) with only two congruent sides. The smallest angle of an isosceles triangle gains thirty arc minutes (half a degree) each generation. Additionally, the rule does not seem to apply to many-sided polygons. For example, the sons of several hundred-sided polygons will often develop fifty or more sides more than their parents. Furthermore, the angle of an isosceles triangle or the number of sides of a (regular) polygon may be altered during life by deeds or surgical adjustments.
An equilateral Triangle is a member of the craftsman class. Squares and Pentagons are the "gentlemen" class, as doctors, lawyers, and other professions. Hexagons are the lowest rank of nobility, all the way up to (near) circles, who make up the priest class. The higher-order polygons have much less of a chance of producing sons, preventing Flatland from being overcrowded with noblemen.
Regular polygons were considered in isolation until chapter seven of the book when the issue of irregularity, or physical deformity, became considered. In a two dimensional world a regular polygon can be identified by a single angle and/or vertex. In order to maintain social cohesion, irregularity is to be abhorred, with moral irregularity and criminality cited, "by some" (in the book), as inevitable additional deformities, a sentiment with which the Square concurs. If the error of deviation is above a stated amount, the irregular polygon faces euthanasia; if below, he becomes the lowest rank of civil servant. An irregular polygon is not destroyed at birth, but allowed to develop to see if the irregularity can be “cured” or reduced. If the deformity remains, the irregular is “painlessly and mercifully consumed”.
In Flatland Abbott describes a society rigidly divided into classes. Social ascent is the main aspiration of its inhabitants, apparently granted to everyone but strictly controlled by the top of the hierarchy. Freedom is despised and the laws are cruel. Innovators are imprisoned or suppressed. Members of lower classes who are intellectually valuable, and potential leaders of riots, are either killed, or promoted to the higher classes. Every attempt for change is considered dangerous and harmful. This world, as ours, is not prepared to receive 'Revelations from another world'.
The satirical part is mainly concentrated in the first part of the book, 'This World', which describes Flatland. The main points of interest are the Victorian concept on women's roles in the society and in the class-based hierarchy of men.
Abbott has been accused of misogyny due to his portrait of women in 'Flatland'. In his Preface to the Second and Revised Edition, 1884, he answers such critics by stating that the Square:
Although Flatland was not ignored when it was published, it did not obtain a great success. In the entry on Edwin Abbott in the Dictionary of National Biography, Flatland is not even mentioned.
The book was discovered again after Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity was published, which introduced the concept of a fourth dimension. Flatland was mentioned in a letter entitled "Euclid, Newton and Einstein" published in Nature on February 12, 1920. In this letter Abbott is depicted, in a sense, as a prophet due to his intuition of the importance of time to explain certain phenomena:
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography now contains a reference to Flatland.
- Flatland (5th edition, 1963), 1983 reprint with foreword by Isaac Asimov, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-06-463573-2
- The Annotated Flatland (2002), coauthor Ian Stewart, Perseus Publishing, ISBN 0-7382-0541-9
- Signet Classics edition (2005), ISBN 0-451-52976-6
- Oxford University Press (2006), ISBN 0-19-280598-3
- Dover Publications thrift edition (2007), ISBN 0-486-27263-X
- CreateSpace edition (2008), ISBN 1-4404-1778-4
Numerous imitations or sequels to Flatland have been written, and multiple other works have alluded to it. Examples include:
Flatland (1965), an animated short film based on the novella, was directed by Eric Martin and based on an idea by John Hubley.
Flatland (2007), a 98-minute animated independent feature film version directed by Ladd Ehlinger Jr, updates the satire from Victorian England to the modern-day United States.
Flatland: The Movie (2007), by Dano Johnson and Jeffrey Travis, is a 34-minute animated educational film voice acted byMartin Sheen, Kristen Bell, Michael York, and Tony Hale. Its sequel was Flatland 2: Sphereland (2012), inspired by the novel Sphereland by Dionys Burger and starring Kristen Bell, Danny Pudi, Michael York, Tony Hale, Danica McKellar, andKate Mulgrew.
An Episode on Flatland: Or How a Plain Folk Discovered the Third Dimension by Charles Howard Hinton (1907), Spherelandby Dionys Burger (1965), The Planiverse by A. K. Dewdney (1984), Flatterland by Ian Stewart (2001), and Spaceland by Rudy Rucker (2002). Short stories inspired by Flatland include "The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics" by Norton Juster (1963), "The Incredible Umbrella" by Marvin Kaye (1980), and "Message Found in a Copy of Flatland" by Rudy Rucker (1983)
Physicists and science popularizers Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking have both commented on and postulated about the effects of Flatland. Sagan recreates the thought experiment as a set-up to discussing the possibilities of higher dimensions of the physical universe in both the book and television series Cosmos, whereas Dr. Hawking notes the impossibility of life in two-dimensional space, as any inhabitants would necessarily be unable to digest their own food.
Flatland features prominently in The Big Bang Theory episode "The Psychic Vortex", when Sheldon Cooper declares it one of his favorite imaginary places to visit.
It also features in the Futurama episode "2-D Blacktop", when Professor Farnsworth's adventures in drag racing lead to a foray of drifting in and out of inter-dimensional spaces.