What is the fourth dimension? This was the question English polymath Charles Howard Hinton attempted to answer in an essay first published in 1880, a generation before Einstein plotted time on the w axis. Hinton speculated a spatial fourth dimension, inspired by n-dimensional geometry, and imagined how humans might experience or imagine a space extended in an extra dimension they could not see.
Hinton’s speculations, published as Scientific Romances, influenced HG Wells and the development of pulp science fiction in the 20th century. His work even interested writers such as Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Mary Butts, and continues to have parallel lives in new-age philosophies that imagine multiple dimensions of spiritual existence, and in contemporary popular SF, where hyperdrives power spaceships, the four-dimensional tesseract is an infinity stone and time travellers continue to hop between multiple dimensions.
I have written about the cultural history of the fourth dimension wearing my mortar board but felt that this approach to the idea was incomplete. Only a novel could begin to get at some of the wilder imaginings prompted by an imagined extra dimension. The extended space can turn three-dimensional objects inside out. It disturbs standard, linear spacetime and allows an excessively intimate proximity that can be either utopian or terrifying, depending on your perspective. And because it is mathematically sound it disturbs what we think might be real.
My novel Hinton uses his astonishing life to recreate for the reader some of these experiences. The ideas of higher dimensions structure it and run through it as metaphorical machinery, while it draws on a canon of what might thought of as fourth-dimensional fiction.
1. Flatland by Edwin Abbott
One of the great underrated novels: an 1884 satire of 19th-century gender politics and the pitfalls of analogical reasoning, realised by imagining a world limited to two dimensions. Narrated by A Square, who through his encounters with a sphere gains access to our own three-dimensional spaceland, Flatland describes a rigidly segregated and hierarchical society. It is quietly and blindingly radical, occupying a curious position between fantasy, children’s book and social satire. A Square continued a correspondence with his critics in journals of the period.
2. The Hall Bedroom by Mary Wilkins Freeman
A series of guests at a boarding house disappear. Journals reveal that they have become drawn into a melancholy painting that hangs on the wall of an attic room, providing access to a higher dimensional space. This ingenious nested narrative probably provides a blueprint for HP Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House. It is an early example of the potentials offered to fantastic fiction by the idea of an extended dimensional space, often accessed through portals. See also George MacDonald’s Lilith.
3. The Time Machine by HG Wells
The fourth dimension was a mechanical element in many of Wells’s early fictions, including The Invisible Man, The Wonderful Visit and the short stories The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes and The Plattner Story. Wells owned a copy of Hinton’s Scientific Romances but first came across the idea of extended dimensions while he was a student. In The Time Machine, his first novel, it is the Time Traveller’s understanding of higher-dimensional physics that enables his transchronic invention. Wells’s forays into 4D were immensely influential for pulp SF writers of the 1920s and 30s.
4. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
L’Engle’s much-loved children’s book, the first in a series, follows the Murry children as they attempt to track down their lost father across parallel universes. The children are able to move between the universes using a tesseract, a potent popular cultural form now also central to the Marvel Universe, but first coined by Hinton to describe the four-dimensional version of a cube. Like many higher-dimensional books, A Wrinkle in Time disturbs boundaries, mixing fantastical elements with SF.
5. Teleportation Physics Study by Eric Davis, Warp Drive Metrics
Is this a fiction? I read it as one. It is presented as a report into the feasibility of physical teleportation, apparently commissioned by the US Air Force in 2004. The section considering the four-dimensional model of p-teleportation makes repeated reference to the work of Hinton and the more recent writings of cyberpunk author and mathematician Rudy Rucker, another Hinton enthusiast. This seems consistent with the US military’s 1980s psychic spying programmes and might be viewed alongside roughly concurrent Chinese research into quantum teleportation. Let’s call it creative nonfiction. Well worth a Google.
6. The Mummy and Miss Nitocris by George Griffith
One for the purists. The leftwing explorer and writer George Griffith had become famous in 1893 for his rollicking future war novel, The Angel of the Revolution, featuring sexy anarchists, airships and anthrax bombs. The Mummy was his last novel, rushed to completion while he was dying, but it’s as rollicking as the earlier work, with transdimensional mummies, speedboat races and international terrorist plots. What it lacks in literary quality is more than made up for by the sheer exuberance of the plot.
7. The Inheritors by Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Hueffer
Joseph Conrad’s three collaborations with his younger friend Ford Madox Hueffer, soon to become Ford, are not often remembered because they were neither critically nor commercially successful. The first of these, The Inheritors, imagines the invasion of our world by the fourth-dimensional “cousins” of mankind, blessed with powers of mind control, who had been forced out of our space and now return to wreak revenge. Strongly influenced by the secondhand versions of Nietzsche voguish in anglophone culture at the time.
8. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
In Vonnegut’s classic fictionalisation of his wartime experiences and the bombing of Dresden, an alien race called the Tralfamadorians educate Billy Pilgrim in their fourth-dimensional experience of time. They have leaked into Pilgrim’s reality from a Kilgore Trout novel, just as Kilgore Trout had leaked into Vonnegut’s fiction through his very real friendship with fellow SF writer Theodore Sturgeon, himself a dab hand in fourth-dimensional narratives. Vonnegut’s 4D owes more to Einstein than to Hinton, but his non-linear narrative has a very spatial feel to it.
9. The Fourth Dimension Is a Many Splattered Thing by Jack Kirby
The fourth dimension was a staple of the science fiction pulps in the mid 20th-century, with writers such as Murray Leinster and Miles J Breuer riffing on the concepts they’d encountered in Wells. No surprise that the idea leapt from the page of those pulps and into comic strips, including this early Dalí-esque piece by the celebrated Jack Kirby. This is also worth a Google because it makes clear the debt of modernist visual artists to the mindbending ideas of the fourth dimension – evident in pieces such as Dalí’s hypercubic Christ.
10. Solid Geometry by Ian McEwan
McEwan’s first published short story images a human origami through which people can be folded so that they disappear into a fourth dimension of space. The conceit is a classic idea from early dimensional narratives, familiar from Algernon Blackwood’s A Victim of Higher Space, or Wells and Hinton’s invisible person stories: it is all too easy to fall out of our space into the fourth dimension. Sly references to 19th-century theorists and inventors in the story gesture towards Hinton. Here, at last, is mainstream literary respectability for an idea that has powered science fiction.