Short story Wednesday!
I was reading Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, which is maybe the best thing ever, if you’re a literature junkie. In one of the books, a character mentions that the last original idea in literature was used in the writing of Flatland. I had never heard of Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, so I looked it up.
It is some sort of Victorian absurdist, alternate reality novella with class commentary (especially about the aristocracy). It’s in a world where there are only two dimensions, and everyone is a shape, and the more sides you have, the more you outrank people. So a pentagon would outrank a square, for instance, and a square would outrank a triangle.
Since I am doing my PhD on representations of the aristocratic body in Victorian literature, I went, “YOU HAVE MY ATTENTION. TELL ME OF THESE LORDS WITH THEIR HEXAGONAL BODIES, AND THEIR TRIANGLE SERFS.” There’s a normal sentence.
Then I read the novella. Which was unlike anything I’ve ever read. I’d explain more, but I’d rather just like to get into the recap so your brain can melt, too. You can read the original text here, if you like.
As usual, WARNINGS FOR SWEARING. Also, warnings for excessive math. I don’t know if that’s an appropriate trigger warning or not, but it probably should be.
Flatland: A Romance
The narrator, A. Square (heh, I see what you did there), opens introducing his world. He lives in Flatland, where everyone is a two-dimensional shape: lines, triangles, squares, pentagons, hexagons, and circles all populate Flatland. The narrator used to think that’s all there was to the world, but now he realizes that there is SpaceLand, which is us.
The weird thing about Flatland is that no one can see anyone straight on. Everyone only sees everyone else in profile. So even though everyone is a shape, everyone looks like a straight line to other people. They can only distinguish each other through a sense of hearing, because voices are class-based here. But then again, the lower classes can mimic upper class voices, so it’s totally unreliable, so everyone just gropes each other upon first meeting them in order to feel how many sides they have.
My head hurts already.
Then there’s some very complicated stuff about how they tell North from South and stuff about weather and I’m three pages in and you’ve already lost me. Okay, maybe it’s not as complicated as I’m making out, but it DOES make for some super dull reading.
Also, females in the book (which are always straight lines) are delicate and feeble and lesser forms of life.
Math AND sexism? Wow. Is it my birthday already?
Christ on a pogo stick, you guys.
All houses are pentagons, and they have separate entrances for men and women. He says it’s because men (actual shapes) need more room to get through than women (just straight lines). Okay. Fair enough. But . . . can’t the women just come through the big door, too?
Square and triangular houses are illegal. Because of math reasons.
Here is some really interesting demographic info:
-Everyone is about 12 inches long/high.
-The lowest classes (male) are usually soldiers, and are isosceles triangles. Undoubtedly the worst type of triangle. They are often mistaken for women because they are so narrow, and women suck:
This fine working-class lad is Tommy Jones.
-Professional Men and Gentlemen are Squares and five-sided figures or pentagons. This is the class to which the author, A. Square, belongs. I would laugh if he was misnamed and wasn’t a square, but a pentagon. THAT WOULD BE SO DROLL.
-The nobility have six sides or more. The more sides you have, the hotter shit you are. When you have enough sides, you get the honorable title of ‘Polygonal’.
This BAMF would probably be Decimus, Archduke of Plane-ville.
There is also a rule of Natural Law which says that a son shall be born with more sides than his father. So if you’re a square and have a son, your son will be a pentagon, and his son will be a hexagon, and so on. This is really awesome, because of social mobility (sort of). Only there is a giant fucking exception to the rule. This rule only applies to the middle classes and above. Even then, it happens only some of the time with the lower middle class people. The lowest classes are barely considered human, and it is rare indeed for an isosceles triangle to have a son that is anything other than an isosceles triangle.
CLASS COMMENTARY, AHOY
If an equilateral triangle is born to an isosceles triangle, that shit has to be certified by a committee ASAP, because it is so unprecedented. If it can be proven that the baby does, in fact, have perfectly equal sides, he is torn from his parents arms and given in adoption to a childless equilateral triangle to raise as his own.
Guys, math class took a dark turn. We’re in Rumplestiltskin territory.
When serf-babies go up a rank or two, it’s really great because it gives the poor plebes some damn hope that life isn’t totally futile. Maybe they’ll never escape the grinding misery that is their life, but maybe their grandchildren will. Conversely, because they’re not totally devoid of hope and there is the faintest glimmering of mobility, it also keeps the plebes from rioting against the nobility.
Also, isosceles triangles are really stupid—almost as stupid as women—so it would make it hard for them to rebel, anyway.
THE FUCK AM I READING
Then he goes on to backtrack on women. Even though they’re stupid, and of the lower orders, women are badass as shit. Because they’re only straight lines, but are only seen from profile, they’re nigh on invisible. They’re just tiny little dots to the Flatland eye. Also, they’re sharp. They’ll run you through as soon as look at you.
This is why men and women have separate doors to houses: because women are so unintentionally dangerous. In fact, when women are out and about, they actually have to continually sound a ‘Peace-cry’, which is basically screaming “WOMAN WALKING HERE. DON’T GET IMPALED’.
Any woman who doesn’t do this gets put to DEATH.
Any female who suffers from any disease resulting in involuntary motions, like epilepsy or even a cold with violent sneezing, gets put to DEATH.
In some areas of Flatland, women can only go outside if accompanied by her husband and sons. In some areas, women are not allowed out of the house at all. However, our narrator says that the more restrictions are placed on women, the less people in Flatland bang, and the population dwindles. Also, the more women are confined to the house, the more domestic murders there are.
Ahhhh. Satire. I was worried in the earlier parts of the book that this guy just hated women. Phew.
Oh, no wait, maybe not. Now we’re back to women being so stupid and so frail and flighty and ruled by emotions that they can murder their whole family in a fit of rage, clean up the mess, and then half an hour later go, “Where have the children and my husband gone?” It’s all very, “Awww, ya dumb, hysterical broad!”
He writes, “To my readers in Spaceland the condition of our Women may seem truly deplorable, and so indeed it is” (13-14). But then he goes on to say that their condition is horrible because women never have hope of becoming anything but straight lines, so their lack of mobility is what makes their situation terrible. Okay, this guy is firmly on the proto-feminist side. His narrator is just a douche-bag.
Then there are chapters and chapters more about technicalities and customs and blah blah. It’s all very interesting, but not very snarkable, so I will skip it and move on.
A. Square has a dream that he mistakes a king for a woman, and it’s suuuuper embarrassing. “So sorry, your Maj, I only thought you were the lowest order of life”. The king isn’t even the King of Flatland, he’s the King of Lineland, where everyone is a line and no one even has shapes. And A. Square is just as confused by this new world as we are probably confused by Flatland. He doesn’t understand how it works.
And then we get into a looooong discussion about the logistics of Lineland. FML. I’m not even going to bother talking about them here, BECAUSE IT IS ALL A DREAM. And sure enough, A. Square wakes up and we never hear another word about the 1-dimensional world of Lineland.
Well that was fucking pointless.
Is anything going to happen in this book? Or did the author just create a really interesting universe, but no plot to put in it?
Then one day, A. Square is teaching his grandson geometry, and his grandson accidentally discovers the third dimension. If I had a nickel for every time a kid I knew discovered a new dimension . . .
The grandson is sent to bed for being an idiot and not taking geometry seriously. But then, out of nowhere, a perfect circle busts into their house and says that there is a message which must be delivered to A. Square immediately.
I’m glad the plot showed up 3/4ths of the way through the book.
The circle miraculously confirms to A. Square what his grandson had said 10 minutes before: there is a third dimension called SPAAAAAAAAAACE.
And then they talk about math for 8 million pages.
A. Square can’t figure out the third dimension theoretically, which is fair enough, so he is taken from his own world into the world of space and it
The circle, which is not really a circle, but a SPHERE (say whaaaaaaaaaaaa?) becomes, in the eyes of A. Square, a god, and there is a new religious order. The religion of space! Only this is considered heresy in Flatland.
He gets zapped back to his normal life in Flatland, understandably shaken. He decides to convert his grandson of the ‘Gospel of Three Dimensions’, even though the kid was sent to bed for talking about it the night before. The kid is like, “Is this an idiot test? No, I was only being silly, there is no such thing as a third dimension, bye.”
Over the next year, A. Square gets really depressed because people can’t see what he sees, and he starts preaching heresy and gets arrested and sentenced to life in prison. At the time of his writing, he’s been there for seven years.
He despairs because he didn’t manage to convert a single person, so the whole revelation of the Sphere happened for nothing. He thinks that maybe he’s just crazy.
Where do I begin with this?
First of all, I am happy to acknowledge that this is probably way more enjoyable if you like math, which I don’t. Secondly, the universe that Abbott created was really interesting and unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I would even happily consider reading this again at some point.
However, the novella either needed to be way longer, and with an actual plot, or the universe needed to be cut down quite a bit. It was such a rich universe, but the proportions are all wrong to make this a strong narrative.
Secondly, this had some great commentary about social mobility, the idea of ‘inherent’ traits in women and the lower orders, class dynamics, religious fundamentalism, totalitarian states, etc.
But again, Abbott’s fascinating universe was the novella’s undoing: the universe was a bit too unusual for the satire to be very pointed. There were a few sentences here and there where I thought, “Ah! Here’s the satire! I see you commenting on your own culture!” But that would immediately fade by the next sentence. Everything else was so dissimilar that it was hard to make any but the most fleeting of connections between the two worlds. There just weren’t enough parallels for any sort of biting social commentary.
The moral of the story, as is the moral of so many stories I’ve recapped on this blog, is: women are just awful.