In 1884 Edwin Abbott Abbott (no – that’s not a typo; his middle name was the same as his surname) was headmaster of the City of London School (basically a boys school for poor children) and one of a number of Hulsean Lecturers at Cambridge University. Like most theologian/lecturers of his day he had some success as a writer having published a textbook on Shakespearean grammar, a biography of Francis Bacon, a pair of religious romances (fictitious stories about Biblical characters), and an article on the Gospels for the 9th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.
But it was in this year that Edwin Abbott would publish the work that would elevate him from theological footnote to one of the benchmarks in the history of the science fiction genre – a novella called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.
Now, before you get the idea that ol’ Dennis has gone all Harlequin® on you, a quick lesson in literary history. Originally the term ‘romance’ referred to a story of legendary proportions. They often referred to stories about the marvelous adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight, often of super-human ability, who goes on a quest. Toward the end of the 15th century French ‘romance’ novelists began to focus on the ‘rescuing young damsels’ notion that occasionally played a part in these epics and even began including extensive erotic narrations of the damsel’s gratitude. By the end of the 16th century the romance novel had fallen entirely out of favour in British society and the term was only used in a satirical manner.
And that is exactly how Abbott uses the term here; because, while the story of Flatland has been embraced by the science fiction community, when it was first published it was widely regarded as social satire due to it then obvious references to the general structure of Victorian society, taking on the severely limiting class structure and the deplorable status of women (unless you’re the Queen of course).
Flatland is the story of one Mr. A. Square, who is, by all accounts, a square. That is a geometric shape having four equal sides and four 90 degree corners living in a two-dimensional world consisting of a flat, never ending plane occupied a wide variety of other geometrical shapes such as lines (women- the rock bottom lowest level of Flatland society – animals get a better deal), Isosceles triangles (lower-class workers and soldiers – men), Equilateral triangles (middle class workers – men), Squares (professional men – lower upper class), Pentagons, Hexagons and other Polygons (upper class professional men of importance proportional to the number of sides), and Circles (Priests – also men).
Mr. A. Square (varyingly called Arthur, Alfred or Albert in 20th century film adaptations) is a mathematician who is quite happy to spend his evenings exploring various geometric possibilities until one night he has a dream where he is taken to a one-dimensional world called Lineland and encounters its highly myopic monarch who quite literally can’t see anything that isn’t directly in front of him. The dream ends with Abbott’s protagonist failing to adequately communicate the reality of his two-dimensional universe.
Not long thereafter, during an otherwise routine night at home, A. Square is visited by Sphere, a being from Spaceland who endeavours to explain to our hero the reality of a three-dimensional existence. When words fail, Square is wrest from his own world and taken to Spaceland where he finally comes to terms with the reality of a world larger than his own. The balance of the book covers Squares mission to spread the ‘Gospel of the Three Dimensions,’ or rather his failure to do so, and his subsequent… well, I’ll let you read it for yourself.
The story has become a favorite of math teachers, theoretical physics professors and science fiction fans the world over, for its obvious ability to help its readers wrap thier heads around multi-dimensional thinking. It is also, as I mentioned, highly regarded as a critique on the unyielding class structure of Victorian society and especially on the status of women at that time.
But what is often missed completely, or summarily disregarded, is the fact that Edwin Abbott was, by profession and inclination, above all else, a theologian. And it is in the pages of Flatland that Edwin endeavours to communicate his personnel theology, basically that miracles are all a matter of perspective.
When A. Square is first taken to Spaceland and sees the remarkable reality that is the 3rd dimension he worships at Sphere’s feet, okay not at his feet so much, he is a floating sphere, but you get my drift. His interplay with Sphere is very much a mirror of the common response of Biblical characters to the appearance of angelic beings. However, as he becomes increasingly accustomed to thinking in three dimensions, he imagines that if Flatland is one step above the single dimension of Lineland, and Spaceland is a step above Flatland, then it is only logical that there be a four dimension and a fifth and in the process of coming to this conclusion, Sphere seems less and less angelic and more simply a man like himself, only with a higher perspective on the order of the universe. To his great surprise Sphere rejects this notion, insisting that Spaceland is the apex of dimensional reality. This is a very precise picture of Abbott’s personal theology.
You see, Abbott had a problem with miracles. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe Jesus performed miracles, he did. He just wasn’t so sure they were all that miraculous. Edwin figured that while healing the sick, raising the dead and walking on water were decidedly remarkable things to be doing here on earth, he imagined that where Jesus came from they were probably pretty mundane, everyday tasks that simply needed doing.
He imagined that the difference between earth and heaven was likely a lot like the difference between the two-dimensional Flatland and Spaceland in glorious 3D. The concept of ‘height’ transended Square’s 2D world and has all the trappings of the miraculous until he actually visited Spaceland, and once he became accustomed to it the glory of it all paled somewhat.
Many passages in scripture talk about how God’s ways are not our ways and how our feeble little brains would have trouble conceiving of it all. Numerous scholars over the centuries have pointed out that the visions the prophets had were hard to discern because of the gap that exists between the earth and the heavenlies. Edwin simply wondered if we would feel the same way if we had oppurtunity to spend time in the heavenly dimension. Would our new awareness change our perseption of the seemingly miraculous.
Not a bad question in and of itself, but where Abbott got into trouble (and believe me he did) was in the fact that the interchange between Sphere and Square seemed to imply that there may be another dimensional reality above the one that Jesus came from. That God might have a god above him! This of course was widely regarded as heresy despite Abbott’s contention that he really hadn’t meant at all.
But the angle I’m driving at (pun intended – read the book) is not about the validity of Abbott’s theology, but that science fiction, rather than being the enemy of theology has often been used to help people understand it, even to promote it. Flatland is a good example of just such a case. Learning to think in multiple dimensions is, I believe, of great benefit when trying to understand the realm of God and how it can differ from ours so much as to seem beyond comprehension. Many people have a hard time understanding God in the same way that the two-dimensional A. Square had a hard time comprehending of the concept of height until he was given a ‘supernatural’ experience of it.
There’s more that could be said about Flatland, but it would be better understood if you’ve read the book, so I’ll stop here. Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments section. I’ll happily respond.
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. can be read online complete with the original illustrations at Google Books.
There are a few movie adaptations to be found a IMDb.
Until next time… Shalom.