Marcus L. Rowland (ffutures) wrote,
Marcus L. Rowland

Flatland biology

Here's the Flatland reproductive biology thing. It's rather long...

…when the Medical Board has reported that recovery is improbable, I would suggest that the Irregular offspring be painlessly and mercifully consumed.
Flatland Ch. 7

…lest the secret should be betrayed, the Workmen are annually consumed, and fresh ones introduced…
Ibid. Ch. 10

…you, the Magistrate, cannot help sentencing him to be consumed - and there's an end of the matter. But in little domestic difficulties, when the penalty of consumption, or death, is out of the question…
Ibid. Ch.12

…ate the minstrels. And there was much rejoicing…
Monty Python and the Holy Grail

FLATLANDERS seem to have a callous disregard for the life of their inferiors, and there are strong implications that they are cannibals; this is never actually spelled out in so many words, but numerous references to “consumption” make it seem unlikely that anything else is meant. This isn’t to say that the flesh of other Flatlanders is their sole diet; rather, “consumption” is a fate reserved for criminals, and for anyone else who must be eliminated. This includes workers and policemen who know too much, and possibly the surplus Isosceles who make up the bulk of the Flatland population. Moreover, it seems to be a form of punishment that the vast majority of Flatlanders consider to be fair and beneficial to society. This strongly suggests that it serves a useful purpose.

This appears to be a universal custom throughout the nations of Flatland, regardless of cultural differences, which suggests that it has evolved as a response to a biological need. Flatlanders need some crucial food component that can only be found in the bodies of their own species, and are prepared to kill to get it.

A Square never clarifies this. Unlike the presence of limbs, which is specifically denied by him, the fate of the consumed is simply never mentioned. This strongly suggests that it is part of a taboo subject.

A Square’s description of the inexorable progression of the generations of regular Flatlanders – Isosceles becoming wider, then Equilateral, with their children Squares, grandchildren Pentagons, etc. – is highly improbable1. If this process were as inevitable as is claimed, Flatland would soon be awash with the professional classes and minor nobility, and the Isosceles would gradually disappear. But all evidence suggests that this is far from the case; the Isosceles are by far the largest part of the population, their numbers quickly rising if the controls on them are lifted, and the actual proportions of the classes seems to be relatively stable. Something must be maintaining that stability.

A Square claims that for Isosceles generations of clean living are needed to attain regular status, but most of the Isosceles he describes are moronic brutes, surely incapable of the degree of self-control needed for such a long-term goal. It seems highly unlikely that willpower is the only factor. At the same time genetics can’t be the only explanation, unless Flatlander genetics works on Lamarckian principles. This is discussed in more detail below.
Stewart suggests that A Square was describing aspirations rather than the reality; most Flatlander sons have the same number of sides as their fathers, and the progression described idealises an extremely rare event. But if he wasn’t lying about the numbers of his children and grandchildren, and their sides, there’s a darker possibility.

In humans large multi-generation families, as described by A Square, are often a symptom of high infant mortality, either by stillbirth or in the first few months of life. In many Victorian families the dead outnumbered the living. These dead were rarely mentioned in discussions of the family. Suppose, then, that the typical Flatland child doesn’t have more sides than his parents; that instead the typical child of parents of all ranks is stillborn, or an Isosceles or Irregular, abandoned to its fate as an “orphan” as soon as its nature is known, but so rarely discussed that Flatlanders think of it as a shameful and extremely rare accident. From a Flatland perspective the whole pregnancy will have been a complete waste of time.
If this is the case, why does A Square have so many healthy children and grandchildren?

The clue may relate to his profession; he’s a lawyer, with an implication (in the chapter 12 quote above) that he may sometimes officiates as a magistrate, as many lawyers did in Victorian England. In that role he would oversee the disposal of criminals, and possibly participate in the process of consumption.

Cannibalism is a surprisingly common reproductive strategy, in circumstances where it will benefit the species as a whole at the expense of a minority; in our world some spiders and praying mantises eat their mates, others their mothers. Some animals (such as baby owls) eat their siblings if food is in short supply, to ensure that a maximum number survive to reproductive age. Xenopus toads can’t eat plants, but their tadpoles can; in some African lakes the toads eat the tadpoles, with just enough surviving to adulthood to perpetuate the species. Several SF stories have postulated intelligent species that still rely on similar strategies2. If the Flatlanders evolved from such a species they might come to depend on cannibalism for their continued well-being, if not for survival.

Suppose, then, that regularity and the progression of sides depend on complex biochemistry, and that most Flatlanders can’t produce enough of the appropriate chemicals within their own bodies. Without these chemicals all of their children will be Isosceles or Irregular, members of the underclass. To avoid this responsible parents need a supplement in their food, and the source for this supplement is Flatland’s prisons and hospitals; anywhere where their own species can be “harvested.”

For most middle-class Flatlanders this meat would be a rare luxury, and they may have trouble getting enough to meet their needs. The elite of government, the Circles and other higher figures, will find it much easier to obtain supplies. But there may be hidden dangers; too much of a good thing can lead to uncontrolled proliferation of sides and an increased risk of defects, as seen in many Circles whose sons might have fifty or a hundred more sides than their parents… but are often still-born or Irregular.

In regions where there is laxness about enforcing the law there will naturally be a huge rise in the population of Isosceles and Irregular figures, as described by A Square as taking place during the period of the Chromatic Sedition3, because fewer Flatlanders will be available for consumption.

If this meat is in short supply and tends to go to the aristocracy, or to be doled out as a political favour, there will be many Flatlanders unable to reproduce as society expects. Some of them may decide to take the law into their own hands. If you’re really unlucky the most dangerous Flatlander you can possibly meet may turn out to be an intelligent young Isosceles, anxious to better his family’s lot, and keen to invite friends around for a meal… with some flatter beans and a nice Chianti…

All of this is rank speculation, of course. It’s possible that the death penalty involves consumption of criminals by animals or fire, not Flatlanders, and that this whole train of thought is a complete red herring. It’s up to you to decide.

Nature's Law prescribes two antagonistic decrees affecting Circular propagation; first, that as the race climbs higher in the scale of development, so development shall proceed at an accelerated pace; second, that in the same proportion, the race shall become less fertile. Consequently in the home of a Polygon of four or five hundred sides it is rare to find a son; more than one is never seen. On the other hand the son of a five-hundred-sided Polygon has been known to possess five hundred and fifty, or even six hundred sides.

Art also steps in to help the process of higher Evolution. Our physicians have discovered that the small and tender sides of an infant Polygon of the higher class can be fractured, and his whole frame re-set, with such exactness that a Polygon of two or three hundred sides sometimes—by no means always, for the process is attended with serious risk—but sometimes overleaps two or three hundred generations, and as it were double at a stroke, the number of his progenitors and the nobility of his descent.

Flatland Ch. 11

If we reject the cannibalism theory and take A Square’s account as accurate in all major respects the genetic mechanism by which the number of sides and regularity (or lack of it) is handed on must obviously be of interest. The basic principles can be summed up as follows:
  • Successive generations of Isosceles tend towards the Equilateral if they live moral lives; marriages arranged by priests accelerate this process.
  • Isosceles whose angles are close to Equilateral can sometimes be helped surgically; if successful, the change is inherited by their children4 .
  • Regular triangles give birth to Squares, Squares to Pentacles, etc.
  • Minor irregularities can sometimes be treated surgically.
  • “Circles” can add fifty or more sides in a generation.
  • Circle children can have the number of sides doubled surgically; the increase is inherited by their children.5
  • Circles who marry inappropriate females often have irregular children.

Obviously there’s a lot going on here, genetically speaking. It’s tempting to assume that there’s a gene for number of sides, another for regularity, another that adds multiple sides in Circles, and so forth. But there’s no way to be sure that this is correct. The oddest part of the process is the fact that surgical doubling of sides can be inherited. This suggests that something more like Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics is going on.

One possible explanation is that at some point in the reproductive process the female Flatlander somehow measures her mate’s angles extremely accurately and replicates them in their offspring, somehow modifying the angle for an extra side (or to widen the angle in Isosceles) as she does so. As more and more sides are added the change in angle needed to add a single extra side becomes smaller and smaller, and the chance of an error (which will tend to add multiple extra sides) increases.

For example, if the male is an octagon the change in angle to make a nine-sided child is 5°; for a hundred sides the change to add one more side is about 0.04°; for 500 sides it’s about 0.0014°

Occasional throwbacks and Irregular offspring would obviously be caused by defects in the angle-setting and angle-replicating processes; there might, for example, be a recessive gene which tends to sharpen the angle instead of widening it, or throws in an occasional glitch, an angle that isn’t quite right.

While this sounds complicated, there are obvious parallels in the repeated processes that add vertebrae to snakes, segments to worms and centipedes, etc.

Assuming that this is correct, after sex (which will not be described – d-mn it all, there are decencies to be observed!) and fertilization the female (or possibly the egg she produced) would create the embryo by producing the side sections, each at a slight angle to the next, continuing until the sides link, possibly around the equivalent of an umbilical cord into an opening that will later be the Flatlander’s eye / mouth. The exact mechanics of this could be tricky, given the limited space available in the female’s body.

If we think of this as anything like a normal human pregnancy, with the young born as a fully-formed if small figure, pregnancy and birth would be extremely painful and dangerous for the mother, and she would have a hideously Irregular shape during the pregnancy!

The illustration shows the development of a fully-formed child from conception (1) through the initial formation of the embryo (2) and its development (3-4) to immediately before birth (5). It’s obvious that there are major problems for the female, especially when giving birth.
Even if we assume that the sides would initially be soft and rubbery, like the spines of a baby porcupine, then harden slowly after birth6, the mother would surely suffer traumatic injuries while giving birth.

A much more likely assumption is that the child would develop and would be born as a needle shape, gradually growing to its final form after birth:

In this version the child remains needle-like throughout its development (6-7) and is born in that shape, swelling afterwards, or staying needle-shaped if a girl. It might immediately be obvious to a doctor that the child was eventually going to be a Square, a Hexagon, etc., but it would be impossible to determine Regularity at such an early stage, or be sure that a triangle was going to be Equilateral rather than Isosceles. This may be why the Sanitary and Social Board examination is needed, and (if regularity is to some extent influenced by diet and environment) why Equilateral infants are immediately taken from Isosceles parents. An obvious psychological implication is that women, retaining the needle form as adults, will always be treated as children.

While all of this assumes a reproductive process that’s similar to 3D mammals, there’s no reason whatever to assume that what happens in Flatlanders is anything like our own experience. For example, the child might be laid as a needle-shaped egg (see the diagrams above), gradually changing shape before hatching or bud from the mother’s body, forming as a continuation of her outer surface then dropping off once formed:

In this version the embryo is built a side at a time, spreading out from the mother’s tail and gradually growing until it is ready to be born, then simply drops off. The material used for this comes from the mother’s sides, so that she shortens as the embryo develops. For some time after fertilisation (8) the mother looks perfectly normal, then her tail begins to spread (9) forming the first side or sides, adding more in stages (10,11) until the child is fully formed and Regular (12), then the child simply drops off to begin an independent life. Afterwards the mother rebuilds length from her food until she is ready to reproduce again.

There are many other possibilities, of course. How they will actually affect a game is up to you, of course, but these examples should suggest some medical and psychological ideas and hooks for adventures; for example, a needle-shaped child might be nearly as dangerous as an adult woman; who’s going to take the job of kindergarten teacher?

1See Ian Stewart’s Flatterland, Chapter 2
2 E.g. The Legacy of Heorot Niven, Barnes, Pournelle 1987 and The Sharing of Flesh, Poul Anderson 1969
3Flatland Ch. 8-10
4Flatland Ch. 3
5 For game purposes this treatment is available to all Flatlanders with three or more sides, not just Circles, regardless of age. This is NOT canon for Flatland, and referees should feel free to ignore it.
6 It would be in this immediate post-birth period that corrective surgery and side doubling would be most likely to succeed.

Comments as always VERY welcome. PLEASE pick holes.
Tags: flatland, rpg
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