Work by some of the country's top genre and mainstream writers will be showcased at Kepler's Books on Oct. 4 during a special launch of the newest volume of "The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy." The event will feature series editor John Joseph Adams, guest editor Karen Joy Fowler -- author of "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" and "The Jane Austen Book Club" -- and contributors Charlie Jane Anders and Liz Ziemska.
This second-edition book, which features a collection of 20 short science fiction and fantasy pieces from both veteran storytellers and promising up-and-comers, walks the line between literary and genre fiction. Among this year's contributors are Adam Johnson, Salman Rushdie and Kelly Link.
"We are trying to shoot for that crossover audience between the literary readers and the science fiction readers, and hopefully make more science fiction readers," said Adams, who spent a year reading stories from hundreds of print and online periodicals before Fowler made final selections for the volume.
"The Best American" series has a long and venerable history of collecting excellent short stories, essays, sports writing, travel writing, infographics and more, but publisher Houghton Miffin Harcourt had never dedicated a volume to science fiction and fantasy exclusively until Adams and his agents were finally able to convince the company that the genre deserved its own volume.
"Short fiction is at the heart of the field. It was always puzzling to me that there was never a 'Best American' volume," Adams said. "But I think it was because of the way science fiction and fantasy is typically thought of as not 'real' literature. Those walls are definitely eroding. If you look at any media, science fiction and fantasy is in the ascendancy right now."
Part of the reason for that dominance may be that the writers in the field are willing to write about more than just white male protagonists having adventures in space or pseudomedieval alternate worlds.
"There's still a lot of work to be done," Adams said, "but (the field) is definitely becoming more diverse and inclusive, in every sense of those words. Not only just in terms of subject matter, but in terms of the sorts of authors and voices being represented. That's something that's important for me to showcase in the series."
The choice of Karen Fowler as guest editor might surprise some of the Man Booker Prize finalist's mainstream fans.
"I had to make the case for her, because not everyone thinks of her as a genre person," Adams said. "But if you're a genre reader, you know she got her start in Asimov's (Science Fiction Magazine) and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction."
A winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, Fowler co-founded the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, given to science fiction and fantasy works as "expand or explore the understanding of gender." She's also president of the Clarion Foundation, which oversees the annual Clarion Writers' Workshop at UC San Diego.
Fowler provides the introduction to this year's "Best American" volume. Reached by email, she wrote, "Speaking only for myself, I love the short stories best of all. They are perfectly suited to deliver the sharp shock that science fiction can create for a reader, one of the effects that makes me love science fiction. In addition, it's a place where a conversation among writers can take place, one story responding relatively quickly to another, objecting or supporting. I think it's the liveliest part of the genre."
Anders, one of this year's contributors and author of the acclaimed novel "All the Birds in the Sky," has a long history of publishing short stories and won the Hugo Award for "Six Months, Three Days."
"I really love short stories," she said. "I think they offer the chance to do something a bit more ambitious that you couldn't necessarily sustain for an entire novel or be able to convince an editor to invest a lot of money in."
A co-founder and the former editor-in-chief of the science fiction site io9.com, Anders sees the Internet as a huge boon to genre short fiction.
"I don't really want to read a whole novel on a computer screen, but I will happily read a short story on one."
Stories in online publications have the capacity to go viral.
"If you're published in one of the markets that has the reach and the story catches people's imaginations, it can get passed around an awful lot. Just try to achieve that with print."
Anders' contribution to "Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy" is "Rat Catcher'sYellows." It explores the possibility of using video games to help dementia patients hold on to the remnants of their cognition. It's a powerful and particularly accessible piece, informed by the author's own experience with a loved one with dementia.
Former literary and film agent Liz Ziemska offers a more outright fantastic tale in "The Mushroom Queen," in which a woman's life is stolen by a giant, sentient fungus. It is simultaneously humorous and horrible, inspired by a dream Ziemska had one night.
Ziemska said that she likes the "unity" of short fiction. "You can close it in a defined amount of space. It becomes a packaging problem. The game for me is, how much can I get in there. With a novel, you don't know where you'll end, but a short story has to close."
Ziemska doesn't see herself as a genre writer but more as a "cross-genre" writer. She started out writing realistic stories, but while attending an MFA program at Bennington College, she was encouraged to find her own voice.
In addition to being selected for "Best American," "The Mushroom Queen" also won the Pushcart Prize, an award with serious literary cachet.
In some ways, Ziemska's story exemplifies what Adams and Fowler are attempting with this edition of "The Best America." The collection demonstrates that fantasy and science fiction can offer capacious room for the offbeat and the unexpected, and adventurous readers of all stripes are likely to find something to their liking.
IF YOU GO
What: "The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy," with John Joseph Adams, Karen Joy Fowler, Charlie Jane Anders and Liz Ziemska
Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 4
Cost: General seating (no book), $10. Premier seating (with book), $20
Info: Go to keplers.com or call 650-324-4321