In case you are unfamiliar, Edwin Abbot wrote what was considered by some to be the first Science Fiction Novel, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, in 1884.
Abbot’s metaphysical novel uses dimensionality and abstract characters to instruct and enlight. ‘Flatland’ is a two-dimensional universe, inhabited by geometric characters. Our hero is a ‘Mr. Square,’ with all of the implied associations. His novel tracks the progress of Mr. Square as he visits ‘Lineland,’ and later when he is visited by a sphere from ‘Spaceland.’
Flatland has a hierarchical social structure. The lowest classes are triangles, and the more irregular the triangles – or any shape for that matter – the lower the class. Since physical harm on our geometrical characters is made by contact with the point of another shape, the lower classes are capable of inflicting the most harm since they have the sharpest angles.
An equilateral triangle is a respectable tradesman. Professional Men or Gentlemen are Squares, or Pentagons. There on up are the nobility. After careful breeding, one reaches ‘polygon’ status and becomes a priest. The closer one is to a perfect circle, the higher the status. No perfect circle exists in Flatland, however, just individuals with many, many sides, until eventually their lines die out.
Advancing on the socio-economic ladder has its pitfalls: the higher the class, the lower the fertility rate. Lower classes, such as the sharply angled Warriors or, even worse, the criminals, will have households of many sons, whereas a member of the priestly class will be lucky to have one. To further decrease the population of the elites, the nobility and polygonal classes will enroll their sons into a dangerous physical regime where additional sides are ‘trained’ in. Many a polygon boy is lost in the attempt to increase his sides.
Though fertility may decrease with the added number of sides, the number of sides gained per generation increases exponentially. It may take generations for a Isoceles Triangle line to make the jump to an equilateral triangle, but a polygon, say with 200 sides, may produce and offspring with 250.
An elaborate social code is upheld in flatland, where the number of sides an individual has dictates class, profession, and mental capacity. Since the eye of your average flatlander can be deceived into mistaking the class of an individual he is viewing, rules for social introduction were developed. Painting and Shading were banned after a social revolt, and democracy quashed when the highest priest illustrated to the equilateral triangles and above the cost of allowing the irregular triangle classes such a large vote. Our author takes a moment to delve into a bit of Flatland’s history. The irregular triangles, with their sharp points, rose in a revolt, and many of those with numerous sides were lost. The revolt was suppressed when the women became involved in the battle, turning the tide and preventing anarchy.
Women are far more dreaded than any man in Flatland. They have two sides only, regardless of parentage, an attribute they claim makes them most similar to a perfect circle with its single side (male polygons or ‘circles’ disavow the similarity on this basis). Being a line with tiny ends, they are the most deadly. A woman is “all point,” capable of “practically making herself invisible at will” and therefore, “a Female, in Flatland, is a creature by no means to be trifled with.” A “run in” with a woman’s sting produces “absolute and immediate destruction.” Femme Fatale attributes are a naturally occurring characteristic of a woman’s physiology in Flatland.
To prevent the weaker sex from inflicting too much oblique harm, the priests of flatland devised a set of laws to prevent accidents and social and ‘domestic’ violence:
1. A woman has her own entrance
2. A woman must make her presence known with chatter on penalty of death
3. An woman taken with any kind of illness that involves convulsions (seizures, chronic colds with violent sneezing, etc.) shall be put to death.
In addition – and here is where the bustle comes into our 1884 story – women must always move “their backs constantly from right to left so as to indicate their presence to those behind them.” Since viewing her from the side makes her almost invisible, she must shift her bottom constantly to avoid anyone from accidentally impaling themselves. Likewise, this way women must always be conscious of their capacity to inflict a penetrative, Freudian-style death, the exercise of which will result in a civilly ordained execution.
Women are to men, therefore, necessary but highly feared, separated out of this fear, and the shaking of their exaggerated backsides serves men as a warning of their approach and of their fatal powers. By that logic, it would be the naked, unaffected female that would be the greatest threat. This certainly gives a whole new picture to go along with courtship and, for that matter, the ‘alone and palely loitering,’ self-destructive male seeking his la belle dame sans merci! Hah!
Of this description of women in Flatland, A.K. Dewdney from the University of Western Ontario writes: “here is the clearest possible expression of the stereotyped female Victorian behavior: the bustle with its amplication of the feminine anatomy, with the continual chatter… [makes the woman] something to be avoided.” I suppose than, that if for fun we were to take the rules Flatland at face value and apply them to the era in which they were written, we would owe our survival as a race to the bustle. For who knows how many would have perished had it not been for that padded and poufed piece of garment architecture, whose rustle and shake warned men to be alert to the feminine sting.
But seriously (and going beyond the bustle), Flatland is a very quick read and a wonderful, witty book so long as it is read with a sense of humor. I read it ages and ages ago, and a revisit still entertains. I highly recommend.