Neal Stephenson wrote a book called Anathem. You can buy it from Amazon or you can read about it on Wikipedia. I really enjoyed it, because it’s dense and full of interesting ideas and wonderful writing. Stephenson is a master of science fiction, and like all good writers in any genre, his craft surpasses it.
The bits about Anathem that matter to what I’m writing are these:
- it takes place on a world a lot like Earth but it’s not exactly earth and it evolved completely separately from our planet (which is to say, it’s not a long-lost colony in the future)
- the larger culture has the run of the place. They’re a lot like our worst vices – obsessed with television, movies, fantasy, escapism, money, sports, competition. Their world is called “extramuros” by the other group of people on the planet, who call themselves the “mathic.”
- there are a bunch of little colonies called “concents,” that are like a combination of cloistered monastery and university. The people in them are like monks who have only their clothes as their possessions. Their chief features are 1) they are largely self-sufficient 2) they have very limited contact with the outside world.
This contact is restricted depending on what kind of avout you are – the “unarians” open their gate to the outside world once a year. The “decenarians” open their gate to the extramuros world (and to the other avouts) every ten years, every hundred years for the “centenarians” and every thousand years to the “millenarians.” These groups mostly recruit from the newly-born and lower maths. This is to say, the Millenarians are only seen every thousand years, so most avout never see one! And because they have so much time for self-reflection and really detailed, slow, long-view studies that they’re said to have amazing, secret powers.
Well, there are all different kinds of “concents” (it’s a kind of convent, see?). Some of them even have legends about each other. One of those legendary concents is the Ringing Vale concent, known for their apparent study of “vale lore,” or martial arts.
So get this – these guys have been studying martial arts for thousands of years, mostly uninterrupted and with very little polluting contact with the fly-by-night saecular world. They don’t have a huge role in the book but it’s pivotal.
One of their central concepts is the idea of an “emergence.” The main character who hears the word spoken in context thinks the Ringing Vale avout means “emergency,” but she explains it further.
See, in the confines of a concent, you can’t really test martial arts. Sure, you can throw each other around and maybe do some hardcore sparring, but in the end it’s still nothing like real combat.
So, when some of these guys go out into the real world (which, again, is rare), they consider opportunities to test their knowledge in real-world circumstances as an emergence. It’s when they find their purpose in life – an emergence is like a hadj, a pilgrimage.
When it happens in the book, a small group of Valers (as they’re called) turn back an entire riot, in the kind of crunching, surgical, kinetic fight scene that few writers can do and Neal Stephenson can always do.
It makes me think of my own moments of emergence, and how those are what we work for.
Stay tuned for further reflection.