by Benjamin Rosenbaum
There are three, coequal and independent, network protocols on Reef Six, and every centimeter of the structure of that immense star-enveloping organism-habitat is optimized to transmit all three.
Data networks are ancient; they predate the Dispersal of Humanity, born in the dawn of time, siblings of agriculture and the atom bomb. Data is atomizable, arbitrary, reductive. It is everything that can be represented in a unified format, broken down into atomic disassociated pieces, bundled into packets, sent and then reassembled at destination. Any patterns that relate one piece to another are epiphenomena of the process of reassembly; that is to say, of interpretation. Data is bottom-up: we read what is written in the trace, then we interpret it, and as a result of that our judgments and our feels emerge.
Passion networks, only slightly younger, work the other way. Their fundamental engineering is holistic; every pulse of the passion network makes sense only holographically, in terms of all the pulses that have come before and will come after. Data networks are a straw through which piece after piece is pulled; to transfer an emotional state through them, you would have to represent it, break it down, translate and interpret and reassemble it. Passion networks are chords that thrum in resonance with one another and with those attuned to them. An emotional state is transferred whole across the passion network, the recipient coming in one instantaneous pulse into resonance with the sender. No transmission is ever partial. At the same time, every transmission is incomplete, none is ever reliable. A data packet that arrives, arrives intact: whatever the interpretation, the lowest level of symbol has arrived one-to-one. A pulse of passion never affects the recipient in a way predictable to the sender. It tunes the recipient in resonance with the sender, but it cannot duplicate the sender’s state exactly —not without obliterating the selfhood of the recipient entirely, and this no modern passion network, even the most brutally asymmetrical, would permit. Instead, it brings the sender and recipient into fundamental relation. A packet of data, once sent, can be read or not, without affecting the sender either way. But a pulse of passion creates a relation; this relation may later be evaded, expunged, or transformed, but can never be fully undone. It conditions sender and recipient alike.
The imagination networks of Reef Six act synthetically to mediate between the other two. They operate on a third principle, offering an infinity of possible context for each data/passion dyadic tension; constructing an architecture in which the sender and recipient are interdependent and instantiated. While the data and passion networks, are, properly speaking, each a medium on which signals are (however differently) sent, the imagination network treats sender and receiver themselves as signals, traveling between a cosmic emptiness and an eschatonic total saturation of meaning.
Benjamin Rosenbaum’s stories have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards. He is the author of a collection, The Ant King and other Stories, and the Jewish historical fantasy tabletop roleplaying game Dream Apart. Originally from Arlington VA, he lives near Basel, Switzerland with his wife and children.