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The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many…

The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (original 1884; edition 2008)

by Ian Stewart (Author)

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448240,400 (4.2)3
The first-ever annotated edition of the beloved classic is beautifully illustrated and brilliantly brought to life for a new generation of readers. Published in 1884 by an English clergyman and headmaster, it is a fanciful tale of A. Square, a two-dimensional being visiting a three-dimensional world.… (more)
Title:The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
Authors:Ian Stewart (Author)
Info:Basic Books (2008), Edition: Reprint, 272 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Ian Stewart (1884)



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In looking at “The Annotated Flatland – A Romance of Many Dimensions” one has to look at both the original work by Edwin A. Abbott, as well as the extensive notes provided by Ian Stewart.

“Flatland” is a classic work, which many have read. An early fantasy using math/geometry as a basis, to comment on Victorian society and expand people’s minds to the idea of a fourth dimension (and more beyond that). The text provided here is from the most known second edition, though Stewart does provide notes as to changes made from the original edition. “Flatland” has survived the test of time, and is a clever and humorous fantasy story. Though not as iconic as the works of Jules Verne, or H. G. Wells, it has a well-established place in the history of early speculative fiction works.

Ian Stewart has added a wealth of information, though his notes need a significant review as some of his statements regarding “Flatland” are simply wrong. I did not check his notes to references outside of the book, but would be concerned that he may have made similar errors there. Stewart also had a look at “The Fourth Dimension in Mathematics” and bibliographies of Edwin Abbott Abbott and Charles Howard Hinton, as well as lists of sources and references and further reading suggestions. Stewart also tends to mention his own continuation of “Flatland” called “Flatterland” a but much, but frankly he clearly has a great love of the original and it is puzzling how he could make the errors that he made in his notes given that love of the original.

I am also not happy with the way the notes are presented. The book is setup with “Flatland” in the inner part of the pages, with the notes in the margins on the outside. This is well enough when the notes are short, but some of Stewarts notes go on for pages, resulting in many of the notes not being on the same page as where the footnote was marked, and also with the notes expanded to four columns at the end of the chapter. I would have much rather that Stewart stuck with the notes at the bottom of the page, or at the end of the chapter, or at the end of the book in a notes section. That would make it easier for people who just wanted to read the book and not get distracted by the columns of notes.

"Flatland" by itself gets four stars, this edition distracted from the original work too much for me, mostly because of the layout and the way the additional material was included, but also due to concerns over the inaccuracies. ( )
  dave_42 | Apr 20, 2019 |
There is little point in me commenting Flatland itself, a geek classic with several adaptations, published and unpublished fanfiction, and apparently a devoted and plentiful fan community, which offers a semi-acceptable social outlet to people nerdier than trekkies and creepier than a gathering of Celts with knives near the solstice.

This review instead will focus on Ian Stewart's attempt at providing a definitive annotated edition of Abbot's most famous production. Overall I would estimate Stewart's notes, essays and assorted materials to make up some two thirds of the book. He has done his homework, too ; the various annotations illustrate pointedly the Victorian context of the novel ; Stewart's speculation on what earlier works inspired each passage, and who it influenced in turn, is erudite and insightful, if sadly limited to English outside of scientific literature (more on that later). Much work and pondering has certainly gone in this.

Hard work, however, is a poor substitute for acuity of mind (I say that most impartially, being associated with neither) and the value of Stewart's analyses is diminished by his poor knowledge and understanding of his subject. For example (yes, the boring part starts here) :
  • on p. 116, he underlines "the first explicit statement that A. Square is good at mathematics", while the latter is already described on p. 69 as "a mathematician of no small mean" ;
  • on p. 147, he states "Abbott does not tell us A. Square's profession", although p. 73 presents him as a lawyer.
  • on p. 166, possibly confused by a double negation, Stewart ascribes to Abbott the opposite opinion to what he actually wrote, and immediately challenges it ;
  • on p.72, his assertion that the heredity described here can only be described as lamarckian shows a worrying confusion between causation and correlation (seriously, if you want to get away with that kind of things do not review a book aimed at geeks ! also p. 45 would provide a less disputable example of lamarckian genetics at work)

Note that I did not set out to destroy Stewart, did not check any reference, did not give more than a passing consideration to the validity of the mathematical properties he presents ; these are only the mistakes so glaring they blipped on my limited radar. (Boring part ends here, I hope).

As a measure of compensation, his jokes are generally enjoyable, even though Abbott himself would probably have found them too irreverent to his taste. At the very least, he keeps them short, snappy and unobtrusive, but their abrasive nature legitimizes my rather mean-spirited criticism, as do his uncharitable remarks on the mistakes of the first edition.

Did I not say I would tell you more, dear diary, about this book and non-English literature ? To my mind there is no doubt that the scene of the sphere traversing Flatland inspired Rosny aîné's La Force Mystérieuse and particularly its goofy explanation of two universes meeting in a hyperspace, their influence on one another varying with the extent of their intersection. Through which direct or indirect influence this filiation happened, I dare not conjecture, but Rosny did read English, as evidenced by his criticism of Doyle's The Poison Belt before its translation. Yet another thing I did not know when I drunkenly lectured about the Force Mystérieuse in the mean streets of Lille ; it turns out Ian Stewart and I are not so different after all. ( )
4 vote Kuiperdolin | Feb 5, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ian Stewartprimary authorall editionscalculated
Stewart, IanEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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This edition has substantial commentary by Ian Stewart, making it a separate work from Flatland.
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The first-ever annotated edition of the beloved classic is beautifully illustrated and brilliantly brought to life for a new generation of readers. Published in 1884 by an English clergyman and headmaster, it is a fanciful tale of A. Square, a two-dimensional being visiting a three-dimensional world.

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