The Annotated Flatland

by Edwin A. Abbott with introduction and notes by Ian Stewart
2002
hardcover - 103 pages
from Perseus Publishing

In the past century our view of the universe has been revolutionized every decade or so by mind-boggling concepts like general relativity, quantum mechanics, the Big Bang, and now String Theory, Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Yet one of the best books to help the average reader "catch the drift" of current multi-dimensional spacetime concepts was written just three years after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and while Queen Victoria still had 17 years left to reign. The author of Flatland, A Romance of Many Dimensions was an Anglican clergyman and British school headmaster by the name of Edwin A. Abbott.

Abbot was a schoolmaster in the old 19th Century tradition, a classicist and Shakespearean scholar who was appointed head of the City of London School in 1865 and remained in that position till his retirement in 1889. He was active in the society of his day, a promoter of equal rights for women, counting among his friends the novelist George Eliot, and among his students the future Prime Minister of England, Herbert Asquith. While Abbott published many books on topics from theology and social criticism to Shakespeare and grammar (both Latin and English), his "greatest hit" was a slim volume of geometrical fantasy simply titled Flatland. It has been translated into many languages and has never been out of print in 120 years.

The story is told by our protagonist, A. Square, who happens to live as a geometrically shaped being in a two dimensional universe called Flatland. The first few chapters introduce us to this strange universe and its inhabitants (including some pointed irony directed humorously at late Victorian British society). Then our hero meets with a strange character who seems able to perform impossible magic tricks. The mysterious visitor is a three dimensional inhabitant of Spaceland who, like Dante's Virgil, takes A. Square on a tour of different dimensions and opens his mind to the concept of multiple, perhaps endless, higher dimensions.

This may all sound a little arch and old fashioned, but Abbott writes his tale with such charm and a playful sense of humor that it is hard to resist, even at the distance of over a century. It is easy to see why Flatland has not only been declared a "classic" but has been in popular demand for twelve decades.

The multidimensional odyssey of A. Square has inspired a number of modern spinoffs and sequels, including Dionys Burger's Sphereland (1965), A.K. Dewdney's The Planiverse (1984), Rudy Rucker's The Fourth Dimension (1985), and Ian Stewart's Flatterland (2001). If you can find it, Ian Stewart's The Annotated Flatland illuminates much of the history and many of the cultural and geometrical references and 21st Century spacetime physics ramifications of Abbott's Romance of Many Dimensions. Either the original or annotated version will give you an enjoyable insight into the whole, "string entangled" question of other dimensions.