OMNI: The Forgotten History of The Best Science Magazine That Ever Was
The covers of Omni Magazine tempted me with airbrushed cosmic landscapes and headlines like, "Missing Time: A New Look at Alien Abductions" and "Riding Comets to the Stars." I brought a stack home. The love affair was instantaneous.
I first discovered the best science magazine ever published at an estate sale. The deceased had been geeky, and among the comic books, star charts, and vertiginous towers of science fiction paperbacks in his basement, I found a crate of strange-looking magazines. The covers of Omni Magazine tempted me with airbrushed cosmic landscapes and headlines like, "Missing Time: A New Look at Alien Abductions" and "Riding Comets to the Stars." I brought a stack home. The love affair was instantaneous.
Omni was a magazine about the future. From 1978 to 1998 (it switched to full-time online publication in the mid-1990s) Omni blew minds by regularly featuring extensive Q&As with some of the top scientists of the 20th century–E.O. Wilson, Francis Crick, Jonas Salk–tales of the paranormal, and some of the most important science fiction to ever see magazine publication: William Gibson's genre-defining stories Burning Chrome and Johnny Mnemonic, Orson Scott Card's Unaccompanied Sonata, novellas by Harlan Ellison and George R. R. Martin, Thanksgiving, a postapocalyptic tale by Joyce Carol Oates–even William S. Burroughs graced its pages.
Let me pick at random from my collection. Here, November 1978: in a single issue, we have a cover painting by H.R. Giger, entheogenic neuroscientist John C. Lilly writing about human-dolphin communication, an in-depth interview with Future Shock author Alvin Toffler, and a reprint of Ted Nelson's canonical manifesto Computer Lib. Not to mention a feature on Ur-UFO abductee Betty Hill, some deep thoughts on the collective unconscious, cyborgs, nuclear reactors, and a wildly beautiful space-art spread. This is about par for the course.
Omni wasn't the only popular science magazine on the market in the 80s. Science Digest, Science News, Scientific American, New Scientist, and Discover were all doing well selling big ideas to armchair scientists. But Omni was a different animal, the only magazine to blend science, science fiction, flashy graphic design, and a gonzo editorial eye into one beautiful package. Ben Bova, the six-time Hugo award-winner who edited Omni for five years, explains it this way: "Omni is not a science magazine. It is a magazine about the future."
Bova reasoned that while science is perceived as being good for you and boring ("like spinach"), the future is "like lemon meringue pie: delicious and fun." To wit, Omni couched humdrum research in speculative terms, projecting the discoveries of today into a world of tomorrow both endlessly alluring and practically at our fingertips. By coupling science fiction and cutting-edge science news, the magazine created an atmosphere of possibility, where even the most outrageous ideas seemed to have basis in fact.
Sample spreads from the author's own collection of OMNI Magazine.
"Of course most of our nonfiction pieces dealt with science in one way or another," Bova explains, "but our approach was to talk about the future; readers swallowed the science because we made it palatable."
Using this technique of candy-coating reality, nothing was beyond contemplation, no subject too outré, from spiritual astronauts to bioengineered children. Its tone was both breezy and erudite; the masthead, peppered with names like Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke, read more like Playboy than National Geographic. In short, there was nothing else like it–not before, not since.
"Omni was sui generis," says Bova. "Although there were plenty of science magazines over the years…Omni was the first magazine to slant all its pieces toward the future. It was fun to read and gorgeous to look at."
The latter was due to its publisher, Bob Guccione, best known as the architect of the Penthouse empire; under Guccione's supervision, lithe womandroids graced Omni's covers and psychedelic tableaus spilled over the centerfolds. This intermix between smut and science fiction wasn't totally unprecedented; Penthouse's prime competitor, Playboy, was, for a time, a progressive mainstream publisher of science fiction as well. And the sexy publisher also meant financial security. Bankrolled by its explicit cousin, Omni could afford to pay its writers handsomely–a dollar a word well into the late 1990s.
Sex sells, even in a science magazine. Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione always made sure Omni was as sleek as it was fascinating.
A history of Omni would be incomplete without consideration of the mighty Gucciones; the magazine was the brainchild of Bob Guccione's wife, Kathy Keeton, a South African ballerina who went from being one of the highest-paid strippers in Europe to the beloved editor-at-large of Omni, and later an authority on the science of longevity. Omni's editors all seem to remember her and Bob fondly, citing their hands-off approach to editorial decisions, and their keen desire to be seen as more than sometime smut-peddlers.
The couple had their peccadilloes, of course; they shared a zeal for paranormal fluff that became more and more visible in the later years of the magazine. Keith Ferrell, Omni's editor-in-chief in the 1990s, hoped to steer the contents of the magazine towards serious, skeptical investigations of unexplained phenomena, but he recalls getting a note from Dr. Carl Sagan during this period, asking if “Omni wasn’t getting a little too credulous about UFOs." (Only on the covers, Ferrell replied).
Omni was tied to the fortunes of its unconventional publisher. What set it apart on newsstands–namely its exceptional production values–was the perk of kinship with Penthouse, a "long-time fountain-of-cash," in Ferrell's words. Ben Bova, who helmed the canonical (but relatively shoestring) Analog Science Fiction and Fact for seven years before his tenure at Omni, fondly remembers the salad days: "we had an editorial staff, an advertising staff, and a circulation staff. It was a major magazine, breaking new ground in the industry. And it was, for me, a dream come true: a big, national (even international) magazine, heavy with advertising, read by millions every month."
Over the years, however, Penthouse suffered from the ascendancy of online porn, which saved legions of men the embarrassment of toting its magazines home in brown-paper wrapping. Coupled with a series of wildly unsuccessful investments in the 1990s–a nuclear fusion plant, a Penthouse casino in Atlantic City–Guccione's erotic empire dwindled; Omni, in suit, was forced to operate on thinner and thinner margins. It's a story like countless others in the annals of publishing history; if anything, Omni's unholy alliance with the relatively recession-proof business of sex extended its lifespan by a number of years.
It also ensured its longevity by being adaptable. In 1996, Omni was the first major magazine to make the transition to the web. It had already been dabbling with multimedia for years, first with a short-lived television show, Omni: The New Frontier, hosted by Peter Ustinov, in the early 80s, then by hosting an interactive Omni for subscribers of America Online. In 1993, the magazine urged its readers to consider the possibilities of publishing's future, pronouncing its nascent web counterpart an "unparalleled opportunity to extend and enhance the controversial issues and topics that we raise in our pages each month." This rhetoric was light-years ahead of its time. "The two distinct environments, paper page and computer screen," the magazine extolled, "will go together and grow together in true symbiosis."
In its later years, Omni strove to retain its readership by doubling down on its coverage of UFO abduction and paranormal activity.
By the time it went purely digital in 1996, Omni was primed to the medium. For a little over a year, it catered directly to the shifting conditions of cyberspace, covering science events in real-time (live-blogging before "blog" entered the lexicon) hosting open chats seven nights a week with scientific luminaries, and serving as a venue for collaboratively-written hypertext works of science fiction. Omni Internet stood at the vanguard of the new medium, understanding the rise of the web as an opportunity to evolve journalism.
Pamela Weintraub, the editor who oversaw the launch of Omni Internet, tells me that "we tried to reinvent long-form for the digital space, adding interactive elements and even experimenting with organization, so stories would unfold temporally or associatively." Although the site was crude by modern standards–programmed by the editors in HTML 1–it was an absolute thrill to pioneer somethig entirely new. "That was our mandate," Weintraub says, "we were the magazine of the future, and now we were getting to be that in the ultimate way."
Splash page for Omni Internet, circa 1996
But with Keeton's death from breast cancer in 1997, this groundbreaking online prescence abruptly folded; with little money, no leadership, and the future, which Omni had so gleefully plundered, all at once unfolding in unanticipated ways, the magazine could no longer hold its own. Still, its legacy is undeniable. "For eighteen years," Keith Ferrell eulogizes, "Omni combined a fascination with science and speculation, literature and art, philosophy and quirkiness, serious speculation and gonzo speculation, the health of the planet and its cultures, our relationship to the universe and its (possible) cultures, and a sense that whatever else, tomorrow would be different from today, all of it–and more–rolled into an attractive and often aesthetically stunning package."
Luckily, we don't need to rely on yard sales and thrift stores to get a peek at Omni's aesthetically stunning package anymore: the entire print run of the magazine is available for free on the Internet Archive. Browsing through this formidable record is an exercise in future shock. We are living in the world that Omni prognosticated, but it isn't half as glamorous, and although its forward-thinking editors, writers, and publishers covered practically every angle on the future that they could imagine, there are still many things they didn't anticipate, most of all the changing fates of the written word. We could use a few more magazines like Omni today.
Weintraub says "a reinvention and relaunch of OMNI for the present day (and of course, the future) would be a wonderful thing." If nothing else, it's a vision that we can look towards, like insects in its tractor beam, transfixed by the great white light of what was already accomplished so long before us.