A. K. Dewdney
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The Planiverse

Picador (U.K.), HC, © 1984, 267 pp, ISBN #0-330-28333-2
Reviewed July 2002

Back in the early 1980s, my Dad introduced me to A. K. Dewdney's Planiverse via Martin Gardner's article on it in the July 1980 issue of Scientific American, and by ordering Dewdney's pamphlet A Symposium on Two-Dimensional Science and Technology, both of which I'm pleased to still own. I'd heard that Dewdney had later published this novel, but I'd never seen a copy until stumbling across it last year in a used bookstore. And I'm pleased to say that it was worth the wait. Though it turns out it's still in print through Amazon!

The Planiverse is partly a work of fiction, written in the first person by Dewdney. In the story, Dewdney and his students concoct a two-dimensional world simulator on a computer, which through an unexplained miracle enables them to make contact with a being named Yendred on a real two-dimensional world named Arde. Yendred is a seeker, trying to understand the mysteries beyond his own world, and through meditation he can communicate through the Earthmen. The story involves Dewdney and his students following two months of Yendred's journey to the other side of his continent in his quest.

The other part of The Planiverse is a detailed exploration of how this variety of two-dimensional world would work. Unlike Edwin Abbott's Flatland, which exists "on the floor", Arde exists "on the wall", which means that Arde has gravity, whereas Flatland is an (apparently) infinite plain. This results in a large number of engineering problems: People have to travel over each other, since they can't go around each other. People can't see through simple things like rope. Airtight seals are trivial to create, so much so that Ardeans have to be careful not to suffocate. Buildings are constructed underground. Plants tend to be flat. And so forth.

The engineering tech of doors, steam engines, boats, and chairs - to say nothing of rivers and internal organs - is much more careful and delicate than in our three-dimensional world, and plenty of space is devoted to explaining how these devices operate. If you enjoy such speculations (I do), then you'll like this book.

The story itself is not especially compelling, but it's charming in its way. Yendred is a touching character, a product of his world but trying to rise above its limitations. He encounters a few genuine dangers in his quest, which his human friends are able to help with, and eventually achieves a sort of closure in his journey, albeit in a way which is saddening for his human friends (and rather mysterious for the reader). The humans themselves have few obstacles to overcome, and those that do pop up seem perfunctory at best. Still, for its length Dewdney's writing style carries the day well enough.

The Planiverse reminds me a lot of Astro Teller's later novel Exegesis, which is about a nascent artificial intelligence, and which has a similar bittersweet ending.

Ultimately, you have to come to The Planiverse for the ideas rather than an arresting story, and on that level it certainly delivers. So much so that it's kind of too bad there hasn't (to my knowledge) been a sequel...

hits since 28 July 2002.

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