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Omni: the unlikely roots of mainstream sci-fi


The tantalisingly trippy magazine that stood at the intersection of science and spirituality

“Unlike most, I (find) art and science to be compatible,” wrote the late publisher, painter and Star Trek fan Bob Guccione in the 1978 debut issue of Omni magazine. “We appear to pursue the same goals. The absolute knowledge of our own special sense of reality; the objective reality of the scientist and the subjective reality of the artist.” Though Guccione's most well-known magazine is the porno powerhouse Penthouse, it's Omni – seemingly small and insignificant amongst Guccione's 82-strong international roster of publications – which is held most sacred, thanks to a cult following of sci-fi fanatics.

The magazine – brainchild of Guccione and future wife Kathy Keeton – stood at the intersection of science and spirituality, fiction and non-fiction, conspiracy and hard fact. The intention was to create a platform for the greatest minds of the day to collectively offer readers a window into the future, both culturally and scientifically. That first issue illustrated this intent perfectly, including everything from fact-centric investigations into space colonisation and life extension to SF novellas by the likes of Isaac Asimov. But it was the aesthetic – bold, beautiful and tantalisingly trippy – that solidified Omni’s place in cultural history. Its 196 covers showcased imagery ranging from the surrealist visions of Rafał Olbiński to the pseudo-horror of HR Giger.

“Between comic books, superheroes and anime, geek culture is huge now” – Claire L Evans

Wall Street retiree and self-proclaimed sci-fi geek Jeremy Frommer has spent years tracking down the magazine’s original artwork, compiling much of it into a thick volume named The Mind's Eye: The Art of Omni. “Today we take for granted that science fiction is embraced as part of pop culture, but at that time, it wasn’t like that,” he explains. “Guccione was like the Medici to science fiction’s da Vincis.” And because of the the overwhelming success of Penthouse in its 70s heyday, Guccione was able to publish some of the most progressive artists and writers of the era with minimal risk, ultimately shaping the cultural landscape of the future as he went.

Science fiction and fantasy are regular fixtures in contemporary culture, from Scarlett Johansson playing an alien seductress in Under the Skin to Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with his operating system in a not-so-distant future in Her, not to mention the more conventional fiction we consider integral to mainstream fiction. “Between comic books, superheroes and anime, geek culture is huge now,” says science journalist Claire L. Evans, who worked closely with Frommer on Omni renaissance project Omni Reboot.

But it's not widely known that of the most significant landmarks in SF's trajectory can be mapped through Omni's oldest issues. George RR Martin – author of the unfathomably successful Game of Thrones – was writing short stories for Omni in the late 70s. When Ender's Game was released in the cinema late last year, few would've been aware that the author of the book it was adapted from (Orson Scott Card) was handpicked to write for Guccione in 1979. And that's not to mention such celebrity contributors as Asimov and 2001: A Space Odyssey creator Arthur C Clarke. Meanwhile, the artwork that accompanied these writers' works is in a league of its own. Guccione's incredible eye and ever-deepening pockets helped to push science fiction art to the forefront in the 70s and 80s. "SF movies today are visually stunning," says Frommer. "No one gave credence to spaceship design until guys like Bob came along." 

The elongated lifespan of Omni's legacy also reflects the increasing prominence of science itself in our lives. "We live in a scientific world," explains Evans. "We always have, but I think we feel it more now due to the intrusion of technology on our daily lives." And it's true that we're more invested in science than we've ever been. While TV shows that explore science and space continue to draw increasingly broad audiences, telescope sales are up 500 per cent, more people are applying to study degree-level science and applications to become an astronaut have doubled. In a world where anything seems possible, we've become slaves to a desire to experience awe. 

But as long-term Omni employee Pam Weintraub is keen to note, the magazine wasn't just about science accompanied by some beautiful imagery. "It was a magazine about culture, a magazine about the future, a magazine about speculation," she says. Omni's ability to unite sci-fi fans with trained scientists and even the odd conspiracy theorist set it apart from anything that existed before or since. "People in the sciences are very committed to the objective presentation of facts," explains Evans. "But Omni came along and really didn't give a shit about that."

Instead, Omni united things which simply hadn't previously co-habited in popular culture, and in this it was a true forerunner to the world as we know it now. "The combination of fiction and non-fiction without boundaries seems very proto-internet to me," Evans says. "Everything was connected. Even the fictional speculations would be explored in the non-fiction journalism." And in that sense, Omni's angle really was a predecessor to the attitude the internet would eventually breed: people immersing themselves in a diverse myriad of interests without feeling the need to conform to a single cultural flavour or political stance. Omni was the beginning of the mix-and-match culture so prevalent today. 

But by 1996, the internet had already begun to cheapen porn, and as the Penthouse-fuelled budget suffered, Omni's print edition succumbed to the strain. Omni Internet rose from the ashes: the first ever online magazine, and yet another demonstration of the publication's ability to adapt and survive where no one else would've had the foresight to do so. "Our vision was completely future-thinking," explains Weintraub, who was instrumental in founding Omni Internet. "We were liveblogging before anyone else. We wanted to create a journalism for the future, a journalism for the internet."

“Omni took on a prophetic feel, it talked about the notion of science fiction becoming science fact at a time when science fiction really was becoming science fact” – Pam Weintraub

And for two years, Omni Internet carved out the groundwork of what would become one of the most prominent journalistic platforms: the online publication. But as Evans aptly notes, "the world just wasn't ready for it." Unwilling to accept less than the lush print publication they'd grown to love, Omni's following continued to dwindle, and following Keeton's death in 1997, it simply couldn't survive. "The Omni concept ended right before the digital revolution as we know it," laments Frommer. "It's one of these very rare things, where, as monumental as it was, it missed the biggest change we ever experienced in technology and communication."

Omni was in circulation at the perfect time for what its content offered. "Omni took on a prophetic feel," remembers Weintraub. "It talked about the notion of science fiction becoming science fact at a time when science fiction really was becoming science fact. We'd talk about things in 1978 that would become a reality just a few years later." And this fascination with the future was reflected in a readership of early adopters. "I would safely say that everyone who read Omni was on the internet by 1998," Weintraub says. Given the fact that little more than 100 million people were online by the end of 1998, compared to today's three-billion-strong userbase, that's a clear-cut cult of future-facing readers.

While the publication itself is no more, whispers of it ripple around the internet in SF-related subreddits and on the comment boards of i09 articles, spurred by a combination of our ongoing fascination with the future and an obsession with reliving the past. Those old enough to buy it on the news stands nurse nostalgia for a time when the future seemed so hopeful, while the rest of us flip through PDF archives online, ironically using what was once a glimpse of the future as a window into the past. 

Perhaps the fascination with the science fiction celebrated by Omni and Guccione lies in the fact that once again, we're hopeful for the future. Nothing seems impossible any more. In the early 80s Omni predicted driverless cars; in 2014, Google are delivering the dream. Colonising Mars has gone from fantasy fiction to a reality TV concept, and the internet itself left the pages of Gibson's Neuromancer to become our primary mode of communication and education – an extension of ourselves. Science fiction and science fact have never so closely correlated, and speculation for the future is flourishing accordingly. "People will always love to think about the future," agrees Weintraub. "It reflects on our culture in a deep way: not only who we are, but who we want to be."