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Sci-Fi Time Travel: Mining the Best of OMNI Magazine

By Wesley Fenlon

The Internet Archive now contains the entire print run of OMNI Magazine, and we pulled out some of the must-read stories and articles from its scanned pages.

From 1978 to 1995, OMNI magazine combined everything sci-fi geeks could ask for. News and reports from the front lines of the science and technology worlds opened the magazine, before it moved on to a mixture of in-depth articles and fiction short stories from some of the genre's best writers. Slate's retrospective of the magazine perfectly encapsulates its spirit and eventual disappearance:

"The only place you'll find Omni for sale today is in a junk shop or on eBay," writes Paul Collins. "To look over old issues of Omni is to experience equal parts amazement (a science mag by Penthouse's founder interviews Richard Feynman?) and amusement (by 2010, robots will—yes!—'clean the rug, iron the clothes, and shovel the snow.')...

Omni's science coverage was built on a sturdy tripod of space exploration, medicine, and computing,but always with a certain fondness for speculative woo-woo. Editor Robert Weil has recalled Guccione's fascination with "stuff on parapsychology and U.F.O.'s," which accounts for the items on alien interference in the Yom Kippur War, a haunted pizza factory, and psychics using tarot cards "to energize their pineal glands." These lived in the fire alarm-red "Antimatter" section, though these Antimatter particles increasingly mingled with the Matter in the rest of the magazine. For a surprisingly long time, this mixture of Matter and Antimatter didn't quite blow up."

A few years ago, OMNI was the stuff of eBay and garage sales, collecting dust and mold and only remembered by those who read it in the 80s and early 90s. But now, thanks to Archive.org, OMNI is alive again. And it's free.

The Internet Archive has scanned and compiled every issue (well, almost--a couple months are missing) and released them in a variety of formats, including PDFs and ebook-friendly ePub files. Unfortunately, the quality's not great--some of the scans are messy and the text files are strangely formatted--but the content makes it worth it.

To prove it, I pulled out some treasures of OMNI's 17-year run and explained why they're worth your time. Consider this a cross-section of why OMNI was special--fiction from authors famous and obscure, thought-provoking interviews and zany speculative future puffery are all present and accounted for.

Fiction

Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson; May 1981, page 56 or Best of Omni, Issue 6, page 16

The principle of Chekhov's gun, as related to me by a writing teacher once upon a time, is this: If your short story has a gun in it, it damn well better go off by the final page. This basic tenet of foreshadowing was originally applied to theater, but it holds especially true for short stories, in which pacing is paramount and every word precious. The fourth word in William Gibson's Johnny Mnemonic, published in the May 1981 issue of Omni, is "shotgun." It goes off two pages later. But by the end of the story the gun is an afterthought, a low-fi relic compared to the quintessentially cyberpunk battle that plays out on the Killing Floor, a swaying, tenuous junkyard suspended in the sky above the Sprawl.

Johnny Mnemonic offers a taste of Gibson's cyberpunk served up rare and raw; he perfected the flavor three years later with Neuromancer, which actually exists within the same continuity. The true star of Johnny Mnemonic is razergirl Molly Millions, who shows up in both Neuromancer and the third book of Gibson's Sprawl trilogy, Mona Lisa Overdrive. Or perhaps the city itself is the star--Gibson teases out evocative descriptions of the Sprawl and its body-modded inhabitants, brief references to Chiba City and the all-powerful Yakuza, just enough to bring the world alive but barely scratching the surface of what he must've conjured up in his mind. It's no wonder he revisited the Sprawl in three novels and two more short stories.

See also: Burning Chrome, July 1982, page 72 and New Rose Hotel, July 1984, page 46

Hong's Bluff by William F. Wu, March 1985, page 90

When I was younger, one of my favorite sci-fi books was a small paperback I found at the local library called Perihelion. It wasn't that name that grabbed my attention, but the bold drawing of a robot on its cover and the giant words "Isaac Asimov's Robot City." Asimov didn't write the book--Robot City was just set in Asimov's fictional universe, and robots followed the sacred laws of robotics. Turns out it was the fifth and final book in the series, but that just made me love it more: without knowledge of the backstory, it was mysterious and thrilling and mostly mysterious. I accidentally dropped myself into the tale in media res, but it worked out for the best.

About a decade later I decided to look the books up online and reminisce, and I found out that William Wu was a prolific sci-fi writer in his own right. He was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards several times and never won; Hong's Bluff was nominated for both.

Tangents by Greg Bear, January 1986, page 40

Greg Bear's Tangents won the Hugo award for best sci-fi short story in 1987. Reason enough to read it. Need another? Computer hacking and music work together to bridge dimensions. It's much better than the Cosmic Key in Masters of the Universe, promise.

Olders by Ursula K. LeGuin, Winter 1995, page 48

Ursula K. Le Guin belongs on a very short list of science fiction's most famous and influential authors. Isaac Asimov. Philip K. Dick. Ray Bradbury. Ursula K. Le Guin. In addition to writing the popular Earthsea series, Le Guin has won five Hugo Awards and six Neubula awards, and that's just scratching the surface--her novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are two seminal works of sci-fi.

Olders doesn't touch on the complex political themes of those novels, but it offers an easy entry-point into Le Guin's fantasy work: a small story, focused entirely on character, set in a world whose richness is only hinted at in tantalizing details. Olders is one of the final works of fiction to be published in OMNI's print run, as Winter 1995 was its last issue.

Easier to read version here.

The Best of OMNI Science Fiction: Issue 1, Issue 2, Issue 3, Issue 4, Issue 5, and Issue 6

OMNI devoted most of its space to real science: magazine features on space and microchips, interviews with inventors and Nobel prize winners. But it made room for science fiction, too--this was the "magazine of the future," after all--and the Best of OMNI compilations pair some great stories with some even better art.

There are names among these pages you'll recognize: Isaac Asimov, George R. R. Martin, Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelany, Orson Scott Card. And if those names aren't enough to sway you, check them out for H.R. Giger's illustrations.

Non-fiction

Enter Tron by Sal Manna, July 1982, page 78

"It is high noon at the O.K. Computer as a video gunslinger (played by Jeff Bridges) faces his attackers inside the video-game program. Tron is a spectacular film filled with computerized images and special effects the likes of which have never been seen on theater screens before."

This brief photo-heavy look at Tron captures the excitement Omni's readers no doubt experienced seeing Tron for the first time in 1982. Captured in still frames, the movie still looks as dramatically imaginative and cutting edge as it was 30 years ago.

Subliminal Software by Phoebe Hoban, July 1984, page 30

Ah, high-tech pseudoscience. Expando-Vision, covered by Phoebe Hoban, was a $90 box that connected computers to the TV sets of 1984 and ran subliminal messaging software (sold separtely at $40 a pop, of course) while people sat around watching television. "Whether they tune in to the national news or the latest juicy episode of Dallas, the Murrays are digesting the same messages cleverly masked behind the medium I AM THIN I AM ATTRACTIVE I AM SECURE. He's lost 11 pounds. She's shed 16."

Expando-vision randomly flashed bits of text onto the screen for a 30th of a second, supposedly bypassing the conscious mind to fill the unconscious with bold ideas. Lose weight! Stop smoking! Be good at sex! Subliminal messaging must've been a big thing in the 80s; sadly, the Expando-vision hasn't achieved the same cultural standing as John Carpenter's They Live.

Dig around the Internet and you'll find a few people selling old Expando-vision cartridges. Too bad the technology never panned out--we could've done all our exercise without getting up off the couch. Actually finding and using an Expando-vision today would be a challenge, but you can get a taste of the experience by watching the subliminal messaging commercial from Joss Whedon's Serenity.

Interview: Freeman Dyson, October 1978, page 100

Heard of the Dyson sphere? In its inaugural issue, OMNI snagged an interview with one of the few (or is he the only?) scientists important and interesting enough to have an episode of Star Trek based around his ideas.

Some of Us May Never Die by Kathleen Stein, October 1978, page 52

The lazy movie plotline of the cryogenically frozen man-out-of-time sailed past cliche long ago, but it's a little wild to read about such a thing happening in real life. This story highlights how morbid cryogenically freezing someone actually is.

"In October, 1975, Luna, the 16-year-old daughter of science writer Robert Anton Wilson, was brutally beaten and killed in a grocery store robbery. Helpless in the face of death, Wilson took the only action he could. He had the child's brain set immediately in cryogenic suspension, frozen in liquid nitrogen at 420 degrees below zero. From this brain a part of Luna's identity may someday be reconstructed, or, from one of her stem cells, a new body cloned. Hers was the first brain to be frozen in this manner. Now, however, a special cryonic cylinder for the brain has been made available for the purpose of future cloning or identity reconstruction of some other kind."

Yeah. The article goes on to cover the history of cryogenics and the prospect of future humans living for hundreds of years. The dream's still alive 35 years later; the American Cryonics Society will put you on ice for a mere $33,000, though the premium "California Procedure" runs $155,000.

The Bionic Brain by G. Harry Stine, July 1979, page 84

Like Some of Us May Never Die, The Bionic Brain depicts a futuristic scientific principle from the perspecitve of the late 1970s. After more than three decades, we probably haven't made as much progress as OMNI's writers would've liked--The Bionic Brain opens with a description of a character doing a day's work through "Cy, a cybernetic interface device" that costs "far more than a home computer terminal would have, even one hooked into the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library."

The subject matter is interesting, of course, but this article perfectly provides the kind-of-silly-in-hindsight entertainment of a lot of scientific writing from decades past. Keep in mind this was written about computers in 1979: "For a computer, talking with a human being takes a long time. Even with a direct link to the human nervous system a computer must send its information a billion times slower than it is able to, then wait the equivalent of six years for a reply! If a computer could feel emotions, it would probably be exceedingly bored."

Antimatter Revealed by Robert L Forward, November 1979, page 45

It's hard not to get sucked into some of OMNI's old non-fiction articles, which start off with dramatic visions of futuristic scenarios before explaing that, no really, this technology is totally viable! Case in point: antimatter.

"You step out into the Arizona sunshine, walk over to your AstroCruiser, and make sure that there is enough water in the tanks and plenty of antimatter in the superconducting storage bottle. Then you take off....At the nearest orbital station you refill the tank with four tons of water, replace the antimatter with a new 30-milligram capsule from the Anti-ERG station, and take off for the marvelous oasis 382,000 kilometers away in space."

Still, the article touches on plenty of real science. It mentions research at Fermilab and CERN and explains the theory behind antimatter propulsion. And you know what? We're still writing about it 30 years later. The antimatter dream's not dead yet.

Racing with the Moon by Douglas Colligan, October 1986, page 170

Talk about a major disappointment for someone back in 1992. OMNI held a contest in this 1986 issue of the magazine asking for aspiring designers to think up the moon buggy of the future. In return, they'd win a flight into outer space courtesy of travel agency Society Expeditions. A program called Project Space Voyage was set to launch in 1992.

Sadly, Society Expeditions--which mostly arranged good old fashioned cruises--filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1992. Turns out the whole space thing didn't really work out. Society Expeditions and Starworld Travel Agency were supposed to be launching people into space for $50,000 a pop starting in 1992, but their plans never panned out. The October 1986 issue of OMNI will forever be marked by the tragically earnest "Win a trip to outer space (Honest!)" that adorns its cover.

Starworld's still around, though, if you'd like to book an ocean cruise.

Moons of Uranus by Ron Schultz, May 1986, page 92

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has reignited a shared societal interest in space exploration, something that's been missing for decades. OMNI's brief, photo-heavy Moons of Uranus offers a hint of that excitement circa 1986, when Voyager II first passed Uranus and snapped pictures of a part of our solar system we'd never before seen up close.

All That Glitters: Cashing in on the interactive future by Linda Marsa, September 1994, page 12

Science (and science fiction) writing in OMNI often leans towards wild speculation and innocent hopefulness. Anti-matter propulsion, space vacations, and so on. All That Glitter is a short piece, but it offers a refreshing counterpoint. Published towards the end of OMNI's run, this short front-of-book article simply conveys the state of technology as it was in 1994.

It talks about cable companies tentatively exploring high-speed data networking, theme parks adding digital effects, and the studio behind Jurassic Park's CG dinosaurs pushing the boundaries of entertainment. The bit about cable companies is eerie; when this piece was written, the market was far more segmented than it is now. Time Warner gets a name drop, but the author likely didn't envision how many of the small telecom players would be bought up and swallowed whole by massive corporations like Comcast.

Order in the Court: "And nation shall not lift up sword against nation" by Martin Sheen, November 1991, page 10

Josiah Bartlet is the perfect Democratic president. Intelligent, witty. Liberal, yet devoutly religious. He feels like a Sorkin ideal perfectly brought to life on the screen, but reading this piece written by Martin Sheen eight years earlier, it's impossible to tell where the man ends and the character begins.

"More often than not it was the unplanned journey that proved more fruitful and more rewarding," he wrote. "I have been moved by the Spirit to join this peace pilgrimage and I decide to trust that Spirit. We are pilgrims--not diplomats--and we must surrender to what lies in store for us and stop trying to determine the work of grace."

As a Catholic himself, Sheen traveled to Rome to present Mother Teresa with a legal brief suing for the end of the Gulf War. It was Sheen's hope that Mother Teresa would give the brief to the Pope, who would propel it to the World Cout. The Pope called the war a violation of international law a month later, though the war had already entered a cease-fire.