is spouting gibberish.
So: a very clever concept, very cleverly done, and I, personally liked it so much I’ve read it twice.
The central concept (As above, so below, dimensionally speaking) is a pretty easy one. I’ve set it down in less than two pages here, and while there’s a lot of finer points and implications, really you can cover the whole thing in fairly exhaustive detail in twenty pages or so, tops. Any more detail than that would bring math into it, and no one wants that. Well, a twenty-page novel isn’t a novel, now is it? In fact, it’s not even really a short book, more of a tract.
Abbot pads out his story with an *enormous* amount of social satire. The entire first half of the book is an elaborate description of how Flatlander civilization works. Basically they’re very class-conscious victorianesque folk, who’s status is dictated by the number and regularity of their angles, and who’s intelligence is dictated by the degree of their largest angle. Women are simple lines, and having no angles at all, are regarded as stupid chattel. The lower classes are all pointy isosceles triangles, the priestly class are circles, the nobility are manysided polygons. We get a lot of detail as to how they interact, how their schools work, how they feel about each other, and so forth. I’m told by people who claim to know such things that all this is a hilarious send up of the mores of the day. Well, maybe so, but I get the feeling these sections were every bit as flaccid then as they are now. There is, however, one really funny bit about how schools are very instrumental in keeping down the numbers of the lowest classes by chaining them up in classes for the students to gawk at, and thereby learn to recognize the poor. In some of the more liberal schools, they feed the poor subject, but in most of them they just leave the guy chained up until he starves, then chuck the corpse and grab another. After all, there’s always more poor, right?
All of this goes on way too long and in way too much detail, but it is needed to get across the idea of how Lineland works as a society, and not just a mathematical abstraction. For the allegory to be effective, we have to accept Square as a person (Stodgy prig though he may be). It also drives home the idea of what the place looks like from ‘inside’ - remember, the Flatlanders can only see a line. Their entire universe is just an infinite plane, so basically they can only see lines. A triangle is a line seen edge on, as is a circle, as is a square. They identify each other by touch, or by shading, since light and fog pervade the place (Don’t ask how).
This is tedious and time consuming, and it’s not helped any by Abbot’s hyper-florid style of writing. Having read a lot of Victorian SF, I feel reasonably certain that his peers would have read this and said, “Eddie, dude, you’re cramming sixteen prepositions into one line, what’s with all this 'ye olde timey' crap?” (Said with a British accent, of course)
The second half of the book works much better, as we get to the actual meat of the story, and such padding as there is really is quite compelling: We deal with society and government’s utter refusal to accept any new teachings that question the nature of reality, as their morals and position depend on a perpetual status quo, we get fear and loathing, and imprisonment as befitting all prophets, and we get a surprising bit where Mr. Square suddenly has a glimpse of inspiration that’s been denied to the Spheres themselves, which makes him - momentarily - their unlikely intellectual superior. This pisses them off, his heavenly ascent is ended, and he spends the rest of his days, like Paul in prison, waiting for the axe.
Which brings us to the ‘spiritual’ and ‘popular’ aspects of this book I mentioned above:
This book was championed by the “Spiritualist” Movement around the turn of the century. Spiritualists were folks who insisted séances were real, the spirits were real, and that all this stuff makde some kind of preternatural scientific sense. In fact, most of them didn’t really care about the scientific stuff so much - ninety-nine percent of what they were on about was pernicious nonsense - but science gave their hoo-hah the touch of validity they craved. The fourth dimension would seem to be ‘the dimension of spirit,’ or at least it would appear as such to us, and so they embraced it. There’s a zillion spiritualist tomes from the period (1890-1930 or so) that make the connection between hypermath and spookie-ookies. A number of them work in Atlantis and Madam Blavatsky to a greater or lesser extent as well. Abbott got there first, however, and he did it better, and without overtly tying it to the occult, even if he implies such a thing might be possible.
His critique of organized religion in the end - that it’s sent running higgledy-piggeldy by any new revelation - is certainly true. We see it in the bible itself: New prophets being opposed by the followers of old prophecy; we see it in politics and art as well. Anything that casts new light on old things is always feared, and Abbott correctly sums that up without getting bogged down in particulars. (My own personal shibboleth for this has always been: If St. Paul was sitting in your church on Sunday, would your preacher be happy about it, or would he try to cover it up for fear that Paul would damage his power and reputation?)
So: an obscure little mathematical allegory became required reading in a bunch of weirdo religious cults, became ubiquitous, and then had its popularity decline as the cults it’d been tied to withered and died. The book itself isn’t cultic at all, however, despite the guilt by association. Even so, it’s an extremely important benchmark in both Science Fiction and actual Math itself.
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?
I honestly don’t see why not. There’s no sex, no drugs, nothing bad, just a stodgy Victorian parallelogram debating the nature of the universe, and casting aspersions on the very government we fought a war to get away from. What’s not to like? It’s a challenging read, but ultimately a rewarding one, well worth the time if you’ve got the fortitude to wade through excess verbiage.