Official™ Renophaston review of Flatland 2

I finally got my hands on a copy of the legendary “unpublished” sequel to Flatland (one of my favorite books of all time). I’ve been looking for a copy of this my whole life. I know, I know, there are plenty of sequels to Flatland, but I’m talking about the official, from Edwin Abbott’s notes, direct continuation. This thing is practically myth, and all but the most obsessed Flatland-fan would deny its very existence. Don’t believe I have it? Check this shit out (click to enlarge):

So why haven’t you heard of it? The way I heard the story, Abbott considered Flatland a one-off thing, but due to public pressure, he started work on a sequel. But apparently he never arrived at anything he was happy with, so he shelved the project indefinitely, and eventually died. BUT! The 50s came along, and sci-fi was selling, and out of nowhere came… this guy (whose name I exasperatingly can’t recall, and who is mentioned nowhere in the cover-stripped paperback I have) who claimed to be Abbott’s illegitimate grandson, and who was in possession of notes and papers he claimed were Abbott’s. Among these were an outline for a sequel to Flatland and numerous aborted drafts of the same.

Enter Avon Books, who was like, “fuck it, good enough”, and commissioned a full novel, which was finished, printed, bound… and then pulped. Presumably due to some legal issues overlooked during the accelerated production schedule and arising from the increasing likelihood that the alleged grandson was entirely full of crap. So all orders were canceled, the books were destroyed, and (as this was way before the Internet) the book was promptly forgotten. Mind you, any or all of this may be false, and up until two weeks ago, I was pretty much convinced the book itself was solely rumor and legend.

But now, I’ve read it, and I’m ready to share my two cents!

Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!

As you can tell by the subtitle (“Sphere Is the Mind-Killer“) and table of contents pages above, Flatland 2 is no longer a “Romance”, but rather a pulpy sci-fi in the vein of Asimov and Heinlein, only not as good. In fact, throughout my reading, I often found myself thinking of the big, dumb blockbusters that pass for “sci-fi” today (think Transformers, Independence Day) which feature the trappings of sci-fi without any of the heart or intelligence.

But that’s being too harsh. There are certainly some worthwhile ideas here (the manner in which the Flatlanders mollify Cthulhu—which I wouldn’t dare spoil on my lame-ass blog!—is fucking brilliant, and I can’t believe I haven’t seen it elsewhere), and as a meditation on the relationship between science and religion, I think Flatland 2 was ahead of its time. Its these aspects that make me tend toward believing that the author was indeed in possession of some of Abbott’s notes, though I wish he had stuck to them more than he did, or maybe passed them on to someone more qualified to finish what Abbott had started.

But all this is overshadowed by a generic “sci-fi” war story with overly-telegraphed, “shocking” revelations in every chapter and plot holes (e.g., the “Proof Cube”, which the disciples of Sphere revere in a way similar to the Catholic’s “bleeding statues of Virgin Mary”, is revealed to be a simple square, but it is never explained how any of the Flatlanders can know this) that make this really hard to take seriously. The fact that the ideas (what this book is ostensibly about) are actually intriguing makes this all the more frustrating.

For example, when Sphere returns, he finds that the Flatlanders have made a religion out of the knowledge he brought them 1,000 years ago, but that religion has divorced itself almost completely from any rational, scientific discourse, and the Flatlanders have made literally no progress—if anything they’ve regressed to a more primitive state. Instead of freeing their minds, he has frozen them like deer in headlights. But the author does nothing with this. He drops that story line, and instead, has Sphere show up with a deus ex machina that would make James Bond blush, never to deal with the real conflict. Not only does this ending come out of nowhere, but it also manages to avoid resolution of nearly every plot thread set up in the previous 250+ pages. The whole book is like this, and while some people would call it “subverting expectations”, I call it shitty plotting. Maybe the author should have spent more time on the story, and less on the countless puns that litter the text.

But as I said, the seed is there for a quality novel, perhaps not on the level of the original, but compelling nonetheless. The idea of two warring religious factions being confronted by their deity and being found lacking is both archetypal and compelling, as is a religion based upon scientific knowledge of reality, rather than upon morality (the ideas of “right” and “wrong” are rarely—if ever—mentioned in the novel, and most of the conflict stems from disagreements about conflicting “truths” and their relative usefulness and accuracy, though dogmatic bullheadedness certainly comes into play). In someone else’s hands, this may have done for religious and scientific thought what Flatland did for the Victorian social-structure and multi-dimensional thinking.

Alas, despite its auspicious but stymied sparks of brilliance, this book can’t hold a candle to its predecessor, or even to most of the unofficial sequels written by others. Carelessness on the part of the author (at one point, a Flatlander actually holds up the severed head of an enemy soldier so that all can see) and a reticence toward actually dealing with the substantive subject matter (along with the fact that it was not actually published, of course!) doom Flatland 2 to obscurity through reader indifference. Beyond all that, though, the real tragedy of this book is that, while reading it, one can’t help but wistfully imagine what this book would have been if Abbott was able to finish it himself.

About Renophaston
Renophaston is Kris, but after another manner.

2 Responses to Official™ Renophaston review of Flatland 2

  1. Madam Curious says:

    So then, in movie form, do you see this as a Chick-Flick or more like a movie that I’d never go see? Who do you see playing the part of Cthulhu? And how does Cthulhu pronounce his/her name? When I try saying it aloud, I sound like a drunk yodeler (like there’s any other kind!).

  2. renophaston says:

    How do I imagine this as a movie, and how do I pronounce Cthulhu? The answer to both is, “I don’t.”

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