Uncanny Valley Digest: Flatland

flatlandLast night’s Flatland discussion was on point! Notes are included below. Good turnout, close readings, and some laughs! Thank you to Nowell and Robert for coming to the studio for the live table. We had online attendees from L.A., Chicago, and Mexico. Though the book is short, everyone agreed it was a dense and slow read, that was occasionally pleasant. It’s more of a philosophical treatise, or youth primer on abstract thought, than a story. Thoroughly allegorical, and definitely satirical. But, as David remarked, “Is it art?”


Here are notes and thoughts captured from our discussion of Flatland:

Lines, triangles, squares, polygons, nobility. HA! Class stratification based on your number of sides. Also, inevitable generational social advancement, like evolution.

Chapter 3. There is deep intentional satire here.
Assimilate the leaders of rebellion to prevent revolt. The poor and disadvantaged are turned against each other.

Chapter 4. All females are legally and culturally obliged to shake their asses at all times. We’re not kidding.

Come on over!Chapter 5. Touch recognition and sight recognition.
Theme: Being able to distinguish between classes and genders means A LOT to Flatlanders, and that is part of the satire. It takes a lot of expensive training to aptly discern the differences between classes and genders. A tremendous amount of social, cultural, and cognitive energy is dedicated to being able to distinguish between classes and genders.

[Remember: their only organ of apprehension is both an eye and a mouth.]

Outcast, deficient blue-bloods cause most revolts.Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 8.40.29 PM

Chapter 7. Irregulars and Square’s eugenics tendencies. Even though some Irregulars are culture-bearing geniuses, we should still kill them all. DANG!!!

The Color Revolt. Randy art! Even a circle becomes an artist! Ah, lost Belle Epoque!
Then the political treachery. And now the priests keep color locked up tightly all for themselves.

Chapter 18. The fascism. If we can’t explain it, we’ll incarcerate everyone who witnessed it.

Meticulous world building. After laying out all those rules, he makes them really affect the characters later in the book. He follows the rules of his world.

But is it art?
Is this enlightened tongue in cheek satire or is it pedantic pap too conscious of itself?
David Gill: “He doesn’t know about storytelling, he’s painting by numbers.”
It’s as clunky as golden age sci fi.
A ham fisted social critique.
It’s art*. (*The way that it changes you is very pedestrian.)
Problematic (seriously fucked up) woman question:Chapter 4. Concerning the Women

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.48.14 PMInteresting:
Dan found an online edition of Flatland that where the protagonist was female. an apocryphal modern adaptation by Suzanne Fox Buchele. Additionally, Buchele omits the Color Revolution.

Using the math to cushion the fascist state depictions.
Dan mentions: “Despite the class and gender problems, the math angle on it made it a pleasant story, more palatable.” To lure readers into considering the social critique.
Pantocyclus and the Platonic Nazis:Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 8.35.57 PM
If you are not born into a platonic form, you will be changed into one or destroyed in the process.

Gill: “The rod up this things butt has a rod up its butt.”
Even as a critique of Victorian tightness it’s a little tight.

Contemporary CONTEXT
Who are some other writers, thinkers, and artists active during this period?
John Ruskin(Stones of Venice, etc.)
William Morris (Another writer of social utopias, and a father of arts and crafts movement.)
Utopian writers of the time, idealized social and artistic comments.
Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, also contemporaries
Lewis Carroll, working on similar stuff
A contemporary (late 19th century) idealization of medieval times.
“Can you imagine how bad things had to be to get nostalgic for medieval times???”
And Charles Darwin.
Abbott’s Darwinian approach toward polygonism. Each generation has one more side than the last, evolution plays out assuredly.
All are challenging Victorian notions of things. He’s part of this historical current.

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.43.29 PM Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.36.59 PM Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.37.01 PMScreen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.24.41 PM

Nikita: “It’s a very hierarchical rationalist positivist medieval style of writing.”
Nikita commented on “the difference between profundity and insanity.”
David asked, “Is that like the difference between clever and stupid?”

Gill says: The allegorical literary pedigree of this writing is like Baum’s Oz books, especially Wizard Of Oz.
With a deep extended metaphor that has meaning beyond its surface

An excellent illustrated digression toward the end of the discussion.
Cool book, Robert!

Pre-TV reading. Pre-radio reading.
Like Moby Dick (which made it to the table tonight in reference), it is a kind of prose that serves many functions that we now ascribe to TV, Internet, and Radio. All of these desires for entertainment were served back then by reading.

...and Dante in the middle.
Somehow, Divine Comedy and Moby Dick got involved.

Chapter 19
Robert: “It’s Dante. He’s doing Dante here.”
When the 3rd dimension sphere takes him on a tour of the third, the square promptly wants to go to marvel at the 4th, 5th, and 6th dimensions. And the sphere says, no, you’re crazy. We don’t have them.

Suhail: “This is my favorite part of the whole book, thought it took too long to get there.”

Square quickly infers that dimensions musn’t stop at three. Square says about the next dimensions: “Or if it indeed be so that this other Space is really Thoughtland, take me to that blessed Region where I in Thought shall see the insides of all solid things.”
Nikita called it “The eye seeing itself seen.”

Square returns home to Flatland to tell people what happened.
Robert: “There are stages of illumination and if you’re not illuminated, how can you comprehend?”
Nikita: transcendence of your perspectival position
A reading of Dante (Paradiso, Canto 1, Ciardi translation):

“I have been in that Heaven of His most light,
and what I saw those who descend from there
lack both the knowledge and the power to write.
For as our intellect draws near its goal
it opens to such depths of understanding
as memory cannot plumb within the soul.
Nevertheless, whatever portion time
still leaves me of the treasure of that Kingdom
shall now become the subject of my rhyme.”

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.43.14 PM
Nikita studying a portrait of Edwin A. Abbott

Dig This: Robert had a gorgeous annotated edition of Flatland, from the Mechanics Library in San Francisco. One of the annotations explained: color and brightness are also dimensions! We’ve been living in more than three dimensions for a while.

How is it sci fi?
It explores insurmountable differences between simultaneous realities; a very old narrative.
When Dante returns from Paradise, he says he can not describe the extra dimension he’s been to, but he must try. This is what happens to Square. The Sphere is Square’s Virgil. Abbott is using this stuff. It’s his literary and academic context.

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 8.46.55 PM

“A Canticle For Leibowitz will put this piece of dogshit to shame.” -Gill
“How would you write Flatland?” asked Robert.
This lead to a bit about E.M. Forester’s concepts of Flat and Round characters. Flat characters exist only to advance plot, like evil stepmother. Round characters are their own story. David said he’d write flat characters for the 2D parts, then add emotional depth to the characters in the 3D parts.

Wrap up: Most didn’t like it as a narrative, but all agree, “It got me thinking about things.”



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