Random Review: “A Conglomeration of Bees” by Kiel Stuart
Beyond the Last Star was the fifth and final anthology put together on SFF.net, a one-time website that served not only as the webhost to numerous science fiction authors from 1996 until 2017. In addition to webhosting, SFF.net also ran a bulletin board analogous to USENET or the GEnie boards out of which it grew. The community that existed at SFF.net not only put out a series of anthologies, but also compiled and submitted the infamous Atlanta Nights, as written by Travis Tea, as a sting operation after PublishAmerica stated that “the quality bar for sci-fi and fantasy is a lot lower than for all other fiction.”
Kiel Stuart’s story for the final SFF.net anthology, “A Conglomeration of Bees” has a wonderfully nostalgic feel to it, a story that inhabits the same world as Ray Bradbury’s tales of growing up in “Green Town.” The story is set in a small town that could be anywhere in the United States although Stuart defines it as Sag Harbor, Long Island.
The focus is on Kate Demarest, who sold various random items off the front porch of her house. Her day started out normally, including a visit to an antiques shop, when she heard rumors or a swarm of bees moving through town in the shape of a man, apparently walking around and emulating tipping its hat. Although Kate hopes to see the bee-man, with a sense of trepidation, she also has her own business to run, no matter how slow it is.
When dealing with a regular customer, Mrs. Sedgwick, who is sure that Kate is hiding the items she is interested in, Kate’s day is enlivened by the appearance of a mandrill, who enters store on Kate’s porch and begins to rummage through the miscellany she is selling. While Mrs. Sedgwick is disturbed by the creature, Kate treats it as any other customer, knowing that there is a bonus in that the mandrill with cause Mrs. Sedgwick to leave.
Eventually, Kate does come across the bee-man as she realizes that the town is slowly emptied, the bee-man and the intelligent mandrill precursors to a potential new order. As Stuart notes, the natural order was shifting, with animals achieving sentience, but a balance needing to be struck with humans falling back to the pre-sentient ways. Kate finds herself facing the question of whether she wants to join the other residents of Sag Harbor or if she is willing to remain behind, knowing what they’ve all given up.
The community Stuart depicts is a far cry from the sort of place someone would expect a science fiction story to be set: semi-rural and almost idyllic. And, in fact, there is little hard science in the story. Stuart barely attempts to explain the origins for either the mandrill or the bee-man, where they came from or how they achieved sentience, aside from the need for nature to balance itself.
“A Conglomeration of Bees” strikes the nostalgic and quaint vibe more than the science fiction vibe and doesn’t quite feel like fantasy story, despite the lack of scientific rigor. The world is changing because the world is changing and Kate Demarest sees the change, but doesn’t feel as if she is part of it, even as she accepts the world is changing around her. As the story ends, the reader is left with the feeling that Kate will continue to figure out how to make her life work, living in her own world, no matter what the society around her looks like.
Steven H Silver is a nineteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology is Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.
Seeing that SFF Net anthology brings back memories. SFF Net was a great community back in the late ’90s. Sometimes I feel — old man yelling at clouds I know — that in the early days of the internet we had kind of figured out online community — SFF Net, Dueling Modems, Usenet (especially rec.arts.sf.written and rec.arts.sf.composition), some of the magazine discussion forums … and then it all fell apart. Or, well, mostly. Sherwood was great — still is great — and she put together a really nice anthology. The stories by Greg Feeley, Christopher Rowe (very early in his career!), Richard Park, Beth Bernobich, the late Jay Lake — they all stick with me.