Wednesday, January 7, 2009

SF authors born 1834-43: 1838

Note: Influential SF authors born in the Thirties are included on this blog, but they're rarely, if ever, Radium-Age authors themselves.

1. Edwin Abbott Abbott
2. Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam


Edwin Abbott Abbott (1838-1926)

English clergyman, educator, theologian, and Shakespearean scholar. Best known as the author of the mathematical satire and religious allegory Flatland (1884).

Dr. Abbott's liberal inclinations in theology were prominent both in his educational views and in his books. His Shakespearian Grammar (1870) is a permanent contribution to English philology. In 1885 he published a life of Francis Bacon. His theological writings include three anonymously published religious romances - Philochristus (1878), Onesimus (1882), and Sitanus (1906). Other works, too.

* Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (A Square: Flatland, Seely & Co., London, 1884).

The story is about a two-dimensional world referred to as Flatland. The unnamed narrator, a humble square (the social caste of gentlemen and professionals), guides us through some of the implications of life in two dimensions. The Square has a dream about a visit to a one-dimensional world (Lineland), and attempts to convince the realm's ignorant monarch of a second dimension, but finds that it is essentially impossible to make him see outside of his eternally straight line.

The narrator is then visited by a three-dimensional sphere, which he cannot comprehend until he sees Spaceland for himself. This sphere, who remains nameless, visits Flatland at the turn of each millennium to introduce a new apostle to the idea of a third dimension in the hopes of eventually educating the population of Flatland of the existence of Spaceland. From the safety of Spaceland, they are able to observe the leaders of Flatland secretly acknowledging the existence of the sphere and prescribing the silencing of anyone found preaching the truth of Spaceland and the third dimension. After this proclamation is made, many witnesses are massacred or imprisoned (according to caste).

After the Square's mind is opened to new dimensions, he tries to convince the Sphere of the theoretical possibility of the existence of a fourth (and fifth, and sixth ...) spatial dimension. Offended by this presumption and incapable of comprehending other dimensions, the Sphere returns his student to Flatland in disgrace.

He then has a dream in which the Sphere visits him again, this time to introduce him to Pointland. The point (sole inhabitant, monarch, and universe in one) perceives any attempt at communicating with him as simply being a thought originating in his own mind (cf. Solipsism).

The Square recognizes the connection between the ignorance of the monarchs of Pointland and Lineland with his own (and the Sphere's) previous ignorance of the existence of other dimensions.

Once returned to Flatland, the Square finds it difficult to convince anyone of Spaceland's existence, especially after official decrees are announced - anyone preaching the lies of three dimensions will be imprisoned (or executed, depending on caste). Eventually the Square himself is imprisoned for just this reason.

In the book, men are portrayed as polygons whose social class is directly proportional to the number of sides they have; therefore, triangles, having only three sides, are at the bottom of the social ladder and are considered generally unintelligent, while the Priests are composed of multi-sided polygons whose shapes approximate a circle, which is considered to be the "perfect" shape. On the other hand, the female population is comprised only of lines, who are required by law to sway back and forth and sound a "peace-cry" as they walk, because when a line is coming towards an observer in a 2-D world, it appears merely as a point. The Square talks of accounts where men have been killed (both by accident and on purpose) by being stabbed by women. This explains the need for separate doors for women and men in buildings. Also, colors in Flatland were banned, when lower classes painted themselves to appear to be higher ordered.

In the world of Flatland, classes are distinguished using the "Art of Feeling" and the "Art of Sight Recognition". Feeling, practised by the lower classes and women, determines the configuration of a person by feeling one of their angles. The "Art of Sight Recognition", practised by the upper classes, is aided by "Fog", which allows an observer to determine the depth of an object. With this, polygons with sharp angles relative to the observer will fade out more rapidly than polygons with more gradual angles. The population of Flatland can "evolve" through the Law of Nature, which states: "a male child shall have one more side than his father, so that each generation shall rise (as a rule) one step in the scale of development and nobility. Thus the son of a Square is a Pentagon; the son of a Pentagon, a Hexagon; and so on."

This rule is not the case when dealing with isosceles triangles (Soldiers and Workmen), for their evolution occurs through eventually achieving the status of an equilateral triangle, removing them from serfdom. The smallest angle of an isosceles triangle gains thirty minutes (half a degree) each generation. Additionally, the rule does not seem to apply to many-sided polygons; the sons of several hundred-sided polygons will often develop fifty or more sides more than their parents.

In the book, the three-dimensional Sphere has the ability to stand inches away from a Flatlander and observe them without being seen, can remove Flatland objects from closed containers and teleport them via the third dimension without traversing the space in between, and is capable of seeing and touching the inside and outside of everything in the two-dimensional universe; at one point, the Sphere gently pokes the narrator's intestines and launches him into three dimensions as proof of his powers.

As a satire, Flatland offered pointed observations on the social hierarchy of Victorian culture. However, the novella's more enduring contribution is its examination of dimensions; in a foreword to one of the many publications of the novella, noted science writer Isaac Asimov described Flatland as "The best introduction one can find into the manner of perceiving dimensions."[citation needed] As such, the novella is still popular amongst mathematics, physics and computer science students.

Several films have been made from the story, including a feature film in 2007 called Flatland. Other efforts have been short or experimental films, including one narrated by Dudley Moore and a short film with Martin Sheen titled Flatland: The Movie.

With the advent of modern science fiction from the 1950s to present day, Abbott's Flatland has seen a revival in popularity, especially among science fiction and cyberpunk fans. While not, strictly speaking, science fiction (it could more accurately be called "math fiction"), Flatland has often been categorized as such. Many works have have been inspired by the novella, including novel sequels, short films, and a feature film called Flatland.


Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (1838-1889)

French poet, essayist, fiction writer. A member of the Breton nobility, descended from last Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. One of the founders of the Symbolist movement in France; pionner on women's rights.

Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, Comte de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (1838-1889), pioneer of the Symbolist Movement, is known for his proto-science fiction works Axel (1885) and L'Eve Future (1886) and his "Cruel Tales" collected in The Scaffold. He also chronicled the colorful adventures of Doctor Bonhomet collected in The Vampire Soul. Poet Paul Verlaine called Villiers' works a "genial melange of irony, metaphysics and terror" and translator Brian Stableford dubs it "a bizarre literary landmark."

* Tomorrow's Eve (L'Eve future, 1886; full periodical publication in La vie moderne, 1884). The novel credited with popularizing the word "android." A philosophical novel using materials of science mythically to consider questions of personality and identity; in his preface, the author makes it clear that he is not writing about the living Edison, but the myth of Edison as the great magician of science. Edison is visited in Menlo, NJ, by a young Englishman, Lord Cecil Ewald, who is near-suicidal because although he lusts after his voluptuous mistress, Alicia Clary, he cannot tolerate her banal, vulgar personality. Edison provides Ewald with an android (French andreide) that will be a perfect reproduction of Alicia, but will have a more pleasing personality. Edison demonstrates Hadaly, an android he invented after realizing that men are attracted to artificial aspects of women — false breasts and hips, wigs and dentures — so why not go all the way artificial? (Hadaly is constructed of artificial flesh over a metal skeleton, and she runs on electric batteries.) Edison lures Alicia to his lab, hypnotizes her, then remodels Hadaly to look exactly like her. (Hello, Stepford Wives.) Here, things get confusing. Ewald confuses Hadaly for the real Alicia; Hadaly is activated by the submerged personality of the clairvoyant wife of a friend of his; Hadaly tells Ewald she is actually a free-floating spirit who used Edison to construct a body for her — but he wonders whether Edison programmed her to say so. (Hello, Philip K. Dick!) When Hadaly is accidentally destroyed, Ewald misses not her body but her personality. Everett F. Bleieler writes: "A remarkable work that deserves more attention than it has received... it is undoubtedly to be ranked in quality and thought-provoking power with Frankenstein, Erewhon, and We."

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