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FLATTERLAND by Ian Stewart

FLATTERLAND

By Ian Stewart

Pub Date: May 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-7382-0442-0
Publisher: Perseus

Overly cute sequel to British mathematician Edwin Abbott’s 1884 classic Flatland, from the Scientific American recreational math columnist.

In his introduction, Stewart (Mathematics/Warwick University) says he got a “bee in his bonnet” to continue Abbott’s whimsical fantasy of life experienced in a two-dimensional universe. Though there have been other Flatland sequels, Stewart (Life’s Other Secret: The New Mathematics of the Living World, 1998, etc.) was fascinated with the way Abbott used science, in the form of the looming threat of a Fourth Dimension and the eerie visitation of a Promethean circle, to laugh at the narrow-mindedness of English Victorians. He also wanted to have some fun: in Flatterland, set a century after the events of Flatland, the precocious adolescent Vikki Line learns that her great-great-grandfather Albert Square (a Square who learned that he, too, could become a Circle) died in prison. “He was the black shape of the family,” her father, Grosvenor Square, recalls. Vikki stumbles on a copy of Flatland (books are actually a series of dots and dashes on a wire), decodes a cipher that helps her hook up a Virtual Unreality device to her computer, access the Interline, discover a smiley-faced Space Hopper and embark on a tour of Planiturth, where, among other things, “the fundamental unit . . . is the philosophon, a unit of logic so tiny that only a philosopher can split it.” Vikki must thwart the anti-intellectual (and antifeminist) suspicions of the older generation as she learns about topology, gets a quick course in quantum mechanics, zooms off to visit black holes in the Domain of the (Stephen) Hawk King and eventually gazes in rapture at existence viewed in a ten-dimensional supermanifold.

Cloying, pun-filled tour of late–20th-century mathematics, physics and cosmology: high twee for the science set.