Ed Driscoll

The Guccione Recursion

Is Omni magazine poised to return from the publishing graveyard?

In 1998, classic science fiction magazine Omni closed up shop. Created in 1978 by Penthouse mogul Bob Guccione and partner Kathy Keeton, it had published some of the biggest names in science fiction — William Gibson, Robert Heinlein, and Orson Scott Card, to name a few — and given scientists like Freeman Dyson and Carl Sagan a platform with a freewheeling, irreverent bent. But after shepherding Omni into online-only format in 1996, Keeton died of breast cancer, leaving the magazine adrift.

Today, though, Omni is coming back — and with it, questions about how our vision of science and science fiction has changed since its launch. Omni’s resurrection comes courtesy of Jeremy Frommer, a collector and businessman who acquired Guccione’s archives earlier this year. Inside a warehouse full of production assets lie thousands of Omni photos, illustrations, and original editions, which Frommer plans to release as prints, books, or collector’s items. But he wasn’t content with mining the past. Instead, he hired longtime science writer Claire Evans as editor of a new online project, described as an “Omni reboot.”

There’s a heavy dose of nostalgia in the proceedings, and it’s not just about bringing back an old name. Longtime editor Ben Bova has described Omni as “a magazine about the future,” but since his time as editor, our vision of the future has been tarnished — or, at the very least, we’ve started looking at the predictions of the past with rose-tinted glasses. Evans, for one, echoes the common fear that we’ve stopped dreaming of a better time. “I think Omni was very skewed towards this idea of convenience, leisure, enhanced ability, enhanced freedom, and sexuality,” she says. “The discourse about technology that we have now is much more ‘What is it doing to us? How is it affecting our society? How is it affecting the way we deal with the world?'”

Writer Ken Baumann, who is contributing an essay to the first issue, questions even the idea of looking forward. “It’s getting harder and harder to actually predict in a real way what the future will look like,” he says, “because complex systems get really messy, and ours is more complex and more entropic than ever. Predicting the future may be a thing of the past.” But if he had to do it? He references George Carlin: the planet is fine, the people are f***ed. “I don’t think we deal with complexity very well, and I think that’s increasingly dangerous, but I don’t think we’re bad on the face of it. I just think we’re beautiful little fools with nice and powerful tools.”

Since the misanthropy inherent in that last sentence must also extend to what the magazine thinks of its readers, will the rebooted Omni really be worth perusing? It sounds like it could be yet another example of “Progressives against Progress,” as Fred Siegel of City Journal described the anti-technological environmental left, which first emerged in the late ’60s and early 1970s.

As I recall from when I regularly read the original Omni in the late ’70s through the mid-’80s, I found large chunks of the magazine to be awfully dull.  I remember thinking, “wow, how can Bob Guccione of all people make the future sound so boring?” But I look forward to at least giving the rebooted version a chance.

(Found via Steve Green, another former Omni reader who is also looking forward to the reboot.)