Circles and Squares Background by Circe Denyer. License: CC0 Public Domain

In this new series of posts, members of the Minimise Project share books that they think have messages and themes that people who are engaged on the topic of abortion might find helpful. First up, Muireann writes about Flatland: A romance of many dimensions, a novella by Edwin Abbott Abbott.

If you were told that the Minimise Project was going to start a new series of blog posts reviewing books that people who are interested in abortion should read, I’d hazard a guess that Flatland: A romance of many dimensions would not have been one of the first books you’d think of. Flatland, by the English clergyman Edwin Abbott Abbott, was first published in 1884, and has absolutely nothing to do with abortion. Instead, the author introduces us to a two-dimensional world known as Flatland. Flatland is home to the narrator, a Square, who is a lawyer, and he describes the complicated societal structures of Flatland, as well as the practical aspects of living in a world where you can go backwards and forwards, right and left, but never up and down.

The first half of the novella provides a fascinating account of the social and economic structures of Flatland. In Flatland, the more angles you have, the higher your social class: women, being straight lines, are at the bottom of the hierarchy, followed by triangles, then squares, then pentagons, all the way up to circles, who are the priests of Flatland. The Square spends a great deal of time explaining how people in Flatland manage things that those of us who live in three dimensions take for granted. How do you recognise each other when everyone appears as a straight line? How do the inhabitants of Flatland manage to avoid being stabbed by women approaching them head on? The first half of the book is a great metaphor for how something that seems blindingly obvious to you is in fact a complete mystery to someone who is working in a different number of “dimensions” than you are.

My favourite part of the novella, however, is the second half. The Square has a dream in which he visits Lineland, and has a conversation with its King. Lineland is a world of one dimension. All the inhabitants of Lineland move up and down in one dimension only. In Lineland, there is no way to see anyone other than the people directly to your right and left, and there is no way to walk past someone to get to someone else.

The Square’s conversation with the King of Lineland becomes fraught quite quickly, because when he asks what seem to him to be perfectly reasonable questions (How did you meet your wife? How did you two have kids if you’re not next to each other and have never even touched each other?), the King seems to think he’s crazy for even wondering why someone would need to be in physical proximity to someone else in order to reproduce:

“I besought the King to give me some account of his dominions. But I had the greatest possible difficulty in obtaining any information on points that really interested me; for the Monarch could not refrain from constantly assuming that whatever was familiar to him must also be known to me and that I was simulating ignorance in jest”.

The Square’s frustration in this quote seems all too familiar to me. How often have I been trying to have a conversation with someone, asking what I think to be a perfectly reasonable question, only to be told I’m crazy for even wondering such a thing? If I’m being honest, this has happened at least as often as times when I’ve thought someone else is crazy for asking what seems to me to be a really stupid question – and yet, from that person’s point of view, their question is entirely reasonable.

Flatland goes on to describe how the Square, having slowly come to grips with the challenges involved in talking to someone who sees things in fewer dimensions than he does, is visited by a stranger from Spaceland – a Sphere. Of course, the Sphere appears to the Square as a circle. When the Sphere explains he has come from “above”, the Square can’t understand – does the Sphere perhaps mean he came from the North? The Sphere tries again and again to explain that just as there is one more dimension in Flatland than there is in Lineland, there is yet another dimension again in Spaceland. In spite of the fact that the Square just experienced how frustrating it was to talk to the King of Lineland, who lacked the Square’s crucial perspective of a second dimension, the Square stubbornly refuses to accept the existence of the third dimension described by the Sphere.

Sometimes, when we’re having a conversation with someone and it seems like they’re missing something so obvious, like the fact that unborn babies are clearly human and it’s wrong to kill them, or the fact that women should be able to control their own bodies, it’s actually we who are missing something. Sometimes, the other person is working in a dimension that we just can’t see. No matter how far North we go, we’ll never understand their perspective – we have to travel upwards, into their third dimension, to understand where they’re coming from. 

Other times, we’re the ones working with the extra dimension. In these cases, we need to remember that not everyone sees things from our perspective. We need to be so patient, and realise that what seems like a stupid question to us is actually a perfectly reasonable question for someone who can’t access that extra dimension yet. We need to remind ourselves of what it felt like to be the Square talking to the King of Lineland, and talking to the Sphere, and really try to see what it is about our perspective that the other person can’t access just yet.

If you ever find yourself struggling to make any headway with someone on a topic like abortion, reading Flatland might help. If nothing else, it’s an entertaining book!