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Flat Earth

Entry updated 11 August 2018. Tagged: Theme.

The Pseudoscientific belief that the Earth is flat has lingered with a strange persistence, supported mainly by Biblical literalism despite increasingly overwhelming scientific evidence. An important nineteenth-century proponent was the eccentric UK inventor and controversialist Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1816-1884), whose arguments led to the founding in 1884 of the Universal Zetetic Society (publishers of The Earth Not a Globe Review), revived in 1956 as The Flat Earth Society and remaining active under that name even today, with an online presence [see under links below]. Rudyard Kipling's borderline-fantastic "The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat" (in A Diversity of Creatures, coll 1913) features two imagined societies of flat-earthers or Geoplanarians – one, in story terms, fake and the other real – both involved in one of Kipling's characteristic fantasies of vengeance. Reacting to a passage in George Bernard Shaw's preface to Androcles and the Lion (performed 1912; as title of omni 1916) that provocatively uses Flat Earth versus Round Earth to mock the insecure foundation of many of our beliefs, George Orwell speculated in his regular "As I Please" column (27 December 1946 Tribune) on what evidence a non-Scientist like himself could usefully marshal against the flat-earth creed.

In Fantastika, a flat earth with edges is most typically found in outright Fantasy. Examples include Lord Dunsany's tales of the edge of the world, such as "The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men" and others in The Book of Wonder: A Chronicle of Little Adventures at the Edge of the World (coll 1912); Tanith Lee's Tales from the Flat Earth sequence opening with Night's Master (1978); Brian Stableford's The Last Days of the Edge of the World (1978), in which a decayed, Magic-haunted flat earth is catastrophically reinvigorated as a rational and presumably round one; Terry Pratchett's self-descriptory Discworld, first seen in The Colour of Magic (1983), which is famously supported by four elephants standing on an immense turtle; Jim Grimsley's The Ordinary (2004), whose flat fantasy world is contrasted with a normal planet transformed by Technology; and David Walton's Quintessence sequence, opening with Quintessence (2013).

Of greater sf interest are Alternate Cosmos presentations of flat earths, as in Philip José Farmer's "Sail On! Sail On!" (December 1952 Startling), in whose alternate 1492 the voyage of Columbus discovers not the Americas but – disastrously – the world's edge. One of the weird otherworld Dimensions accessible in Colin Kapp's Transfinite Man (November 1963-January 1964 New Worlds as "The Dark Mind"; 1964; vt The Dark Mind 1965) is no more than a plane extending to infinity in all directions; a flat world without edges. Sam J Lundwall's untranslated Flat Earth sequence, opening with Flicka i fönster vid världens kant ["Girl in a Window at the Edge of the World"] (1980), offers a more complex vision of an Alternate-World flat Earth whose Identity is dissolving and blurring into other alternate realities. Terry Gilliam's short, comic pirate film The Crimson Permanent Assurance (1981) ends with a revelation similar to that of "Sail On! Sail On!" (see also Monty Python's Flying Circus).

Flat Macrostructures are occasionally envisaged by sf authors. The Demolished Man (January-March 1952 Galaxy; 1953) by Alfred Bester describes the dome-studded Space Habitat-cum-amusement park Spaceland, which over the years has proliferated two-dimensionally from an initial "flat plate of asteroid rock half a mile in diameter". In Larry Niven's Ringworld Engineers (July 1979-January 1980 Galileo; 1979), the immense band-shaped Ringworld includes sea islands which are detailed "maps" of normal planets, including a flat Earth and a flat Mars. Terry Pratchett's Strata (1981) predates Discworld and centres on a proto-Discworld presented in strictly sf terms as a cosmic joke perpetrated by whimsical Forerunners. Iain M Banks's Culture series, opening with Consider Phlebas (1987), features mini-Ringworlds called Orbitals: these are constructed from flat or flattish segments known as Plates, with the smallest possible Orbital comprising two tethered Plates whirling about their common centre to provide (as in wheel-model Space Stations) the centrifugal equivalent of Gravity. Perhaps the most unusual artificial flat earth is found in Charles Stross's Missile Gap (in One Million A.D., anth 2006, ed Gardner Dozois; 2007 chap), where Alien experimenters have "plated" replicas of Earth's land-masses on to a vast flat structure of sufficient thickness to provide normal surface gravity – to the detriment of Space Flight, since gravity here falls off much more slowly with altitude than under the inverse-square law applying to distance from a spherical planet.

One quirky variant is the titular creation of Philip José Farmer's World of Tiers books, opening with The Maker of Universes (1965; rev 1980). This planetoid, inhabiting a Pocket Universe, has a highly artificial wedding-cake structure of diminishing flat-topped cylinders – in effect a stack of flat earths. [DRL]

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