It isn't often that you close your advance copy of some skiffy novel and think, "Bloody hell, this is it. This is the new direction for SF. The area of a whole decade's fresh exploration has just been outlined in a few daring strokes..." Of course I could be wrong (the last three times I had this thought, the book didn't even make it into paperback, spurlos versenkt) – but at risk of greeting 1987 with a well-egged face, I predict that Masters of Inworld will be remembered as a turning point in the history of SF awards.
At first glance the plot elements may seem routine. Telepathic sex with a variety of cetaceans ... dizzying excursions into cyberspace within the protagonist's pocket calculator ... a trek across the surface of that incredible, galaxy-spanning Klein bottle known as Inworld, where magic works ... emotional problems of a doomed cyborg space-pilot unable to have normal sex since orgasm propels him and his ship on a multi-lightyear jump ... harmless, cuddly pets which on exposure to radiation spawn terrifying, kilometre-long sandsnakes ... maps, computer-generated graphics, and a long glossary detailing the clickspeech of the enigmatic alien Neppat. The actual writing, with its echoes of Robert Heinlein, Piers Anthony, Alan Dean Foster and Philip E. High, is entirely adequate to the author's ambitions.
So where's the special originality? In production and distribution, which make striking use of the latest technology. Each copy is in fact individually produced by laser printer, personalized with the prospective owner's name: in a bold adaptation of the "fighting fantasy gamebook" approach, you, by name, become the protagonist. (The first time I recall this notion being mentioned, by the way, is in Disch's Echo Round His Bones, 1969. Burette goes one better than Disch by, apparently, having two basic texts of his novel: male or female readers/participators are accommodated with equal ease, even in the slave bondage scenes.) This really does promote reader identification: I found myself heavily involved in the moral conflict surrounding my – that is, the protagonist's – decision to incinerate a mob of repellent alien "peace protesters" bent on sabotaging the galactic war effort by insidious propaganda.
Even this gimmick is not the true innovation. The present edition is for obvious reasons available only by mail order – but towards the end of the year Denovo Press plans a distribution of several thousand complimentary copies of Masters of Inworld. By special arrangement, these attractive, personalized books will go to every registered member of the 1986 World SF Convention (to be held in Atlanta, USA) – with the author's and publisher's compliments. The Worldcon membership is, of course, responsible for voting on the Hugo awards.
I may be wrong in thinking this a turning-point in the history of the award. It may be quite without significance that the most idealized and spiritual character in Masters (a guru who teaches the protagonist to utilize the cosmic "Dyne") is named Hugo. Wait for the award ceremony at the end of next summer, and we shall see.