Today’s Favorite Magazine From The V1N1 Collection: Omni Science Fiction and Science Fact

From 1978 and shockingly, at least at the time, from the publishers of Penthouse magazine and producers of the infamous Caligula movie, one of the most successful, quasi science fiction magazines ever published –

Announced with great fanfare and demonstrating to the science fiction community that it knew what it was doing by hiring Ben Bova to edit (following his long stint at Analog), Omni had all the earmarks of being a boon to the field and then, you got that cover for the debut issue.

I bought three, but that was only because that’s what I was doing in those days – one to read, one to collect and store, one to store for possible future re-sale – not because I was all that enthused with the publication itself.  That cover just did not inspire.  (Note that it instructs “Collector’s Edition” right on the cover.)

Well, ok.  Maybe they have their reasons and justifications…don’t want to scare off a general audience, want to establish itself as serious-minded and hey, look, it’s name is a visual pun.  It reads “Omni” one way and “0 3 2 1” in another (true, but countdowns do not progress from 0 to 3, it should be “3 2 1 0”, but then that would read “MNIO” the other way and that’s not a word.  Well, they tried….)

The magazine was a magazine success, not just a science fiction magazine success.  It was also yet another attempt by a publisher to marry science fiction to science promotion  and the sugar coating of potentially difficult scientific concepts (where have we heard this formula before) through popularization and fictional presentation.

Which it did quite successfully for some time.  Ellen Datlow was later hired as fiction editor;  Robert Sheckley and Gregory Benford were also on board in later years.  Some notable fiction was published by Ellison and Martin, Silverberg, Pohl, Niven, Gibson, Sterling.

In later years several attempts to resurrect it took place – the first even featuring “We’re Back!” on the cover.  An online attempt was made, as well as getting mired in trademark disputes when someone found much of Guccione’s archives in a storage locker and launched Omni.Media.  The trademark was acquired by other parties, there were lawsuits and, while the storage locker folks appear to be selling back issues on Amazon, they’ve also changed their website name to Futurism…so who knows what the settlement of that dispute actually was.  (Plenty of folks who read this website were at least peripherally involved, perhaps they can share more detail.)

My personal disappointment with this magazine – which did pay the best rates in the field and enjoyed probably the highest public recognition of any “SF” magazine during its tenure, was the creep of pseudoscience into its pages.

It’s my considered  opinion that a popular magazine that attempts to appropriately mix science fiction and popular science fact can not include pseudoscientific claptrap into its mix.  This has multiple effects, from turning off your SF readers (at least those who know the difference between science and pseudoscience); it draws in an audience that isn’t an SF audience and, worst of all, it blurs the lines of reality by giving cover (look, it’s in a science magazine!) to the BS, lending undue credibility.

This tactic of increasing circulation by dumbing down content to appeal to a wider audience has been tried before by SF magazines (Palmer with Amazing, Campbell with Astounding/Analog) and, historically, it appears to be a bell weather for eventual decline.  That may not be the stated reason for Omni following in those older magazine’s footsteps, but I think it was a contributing factor, though the death of its founders and champions was no doubt a larger factor.

Also produced was an annual anthology edition, The Best of Omni Science Fiction, which was originally all reprints but eventually included original fiction.  Eventually, that too was to be edited by Datlow. (She’s got so many of them, eventually we are going to need The Ellen Datlow Museum of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction Anthologies.  Perhaps Chris Garcia would like to curate.)

An attempt was made to bring it back as Omni Online, and a one-off UK publication was also produced (separate from the UK edition of the original magazine), titled, oddly, UK Omni.

I actually purged my collection of a bunch of the issues of this magazine, along with a good pile of Heavy Metals, for two primary reasons:  both were HEAVY publications.  They were also side-stapled, with the covers frequently becoming detached or separating entirely.  (They were also both printed on slick, glossy covers and anyone who collects can tell you that such materials promote sliding, though not of the television show variety.  Sliding also tended to pull covers off.  So off they went.)

You can find that first issue and others at the Internet Archive, as well as many of them for sale on Amazon, the anthology as well.  But watch out for those gray pages.  Before you know it, they’ll have you searching for a Dean Drive in subterranean caverns inhabited by detrimental robots who will use their psychic emanations to convince you to board that UFO, which, sadly, do not have any of Datlow’s anthologies aboard.  It’s going to be a long, boring, probe-filled trip, with a bad ending.

(Both the “We’re Back” and “Best of Omni” issues are also in the V1N1 collection.)

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