Omni

Tagged: Publication

US heavily illustrated popular-science Slick magazine which included fiction; letter-size format, published by Omni Publications International, New York, October 1978 to Winter 1995, 200 issues, monthly (though February/March 1993 issue combined) to April 1995 and quarterly for two final issues, Fall and Winter 2005. Editors: Frank Kendig, October 1978 to December 1979, Ben Bova, January 1980 to September 1981, Dick Teresi, October 1981 to June 1984, Gurney Williams III, July 1984 to May 1986, Patrice Adcroft, June 1986 to September 1990, Keith Ferrell, October 1990 to Winter 1995.

Founded by Bob Guccione (1930-2010) as a sister periodical to Penthouse, Omni was one of the big success stories of 1980s US Magazine publishing. Lavishly illustrated in colour, publishing science articles ranging from the demanding through the gosh-wow to features on marginally scientific, "New-Age" subjects like parapsychology, Omni did not depend on fiction for its sales, and was fortunate in having fiction editors who kept the standard high, namely Ben Bova (October 1978-December 1979), Robert Sheckley (January 1980-September 1981) and Ellen Datlow (October 1981-Winter 1995). Because it had a high circulation – at times topping one million – and because it paid the sf market's highest rates for fiction, Omni gained a prestige in sf circles out of proportion to the actual number of stories it published (usually only two or three per issue, and only one per issue through most of the early 1990s).

Omni's fiction, interestingly, did not put a high premium on hard science, not even under its first formal fiction editor Ben Bova, who seemed determined not to publish material that would suggest a continuation of Analog, whose editorship he had only recently left. Early stories included "A Thousand Deaths" (December 1978) by Orson Scott Card, depicting a United States overrun by the Soviet Union, and even a Vampire story, "The Ancient Mind at Work" (February 1979) by Suzy McKee Charnas. Part of this may reflect the fact that Omni had been produced more for Bob Guccione's partner, Kathy Keeton (1939-1997) than Guccione himself. Keeton was interested in the alternative sciences, especially parapsychology, Predictions, dreams and so on, and it was pertinent that at least some of this was reflected in the fiction. George R R Martin's two early award-winning stories demonstrate this wider concept of science: "The Way of Cross and Dragon" (June 1979) considers the nature of religious faith in the far distant future, whilst "Sandkings" (August 1979) considers the fate of a collector of exotic Alien creatures which have a chameleon-like talent. Omni also made popular the concept of Cyberspace – the word was first coined by William Gibson in his story "Burning Chrome" in the July 1982 Omni, and the magazine was supportive of the Cyberpunk of Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

Generally, however, and especially under the tenure of Ellen Datlow, Omni often published Science Fantasy, pure Fantasy and Mainstream fiction with a small sf twist to it. This has been attributed – by Datlow in 1991 – to the higher quality overall of fantasy submissions relative to sf submissions, rather than to any editorial policy. As fiction editor (a role she also filled toward the end of Robert Sheckley's editorship from July 1981 when he went on leave of absence), Datlow not only pulled in the big names but also did much for the careers of novice writers. For example, Ted Chiang's novelette "Tower of Babylon" (November 1990), his first story, won a Nebula. She also published the first short story by K W Jeter, though he had already written several novels; she gave the first US magazine publication to stories by Clive Barker. Among other important award-winning Omni novelettes and short stories (see full list below) were "Tangents" (January 1986) by Greg Bear (Hugo and Nebula), "Schrödinger's Kitten" (September 1988) by George Alec Effinger (Hugo and Nebula) and "Radio Waves" (Winter 1995) by Michael Swanwick (World Fantasy Award). In addition, Harlan Ellison's "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" (July 1992) was selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 1993 (anth 1993) edited by Louise Erdrich.

Omni also published work of some literary distinction by William S Burroughs, Julio Cortázar, Thomas M Disch, Joyce Carol Oates and John Crowley, supported the eccentric talent of Howard Waldrop, and generally had an honourable, imaginative publishing record. Although Datlow is on record as having liked very much some stories she would still not accept for Omni, she seems to have made remarkably few concessions, in Omni's fiction, to its mass-market audience.

The fiction was, in some ways, a counterbalance to the hard-science features that dominated the magazine. Many of these were speculative, looking at mankind's future in space, the progress towards Artificial Intelligence (see AI) and the development of new medicines and surgical techniques (see Medicine). Omni was almost certainly the first popular magazine to use the word Nanotechnology, headlining it across the cover of the November 1986 issue for the feature article "Tinytech" by Fred Hapgood.

What Omni did was make science "sexy", and in so doing it also helped the celebrity status of certain scientists. Many scientists who would otherwise have been no more than backroom boffins or specialist academics received the star treatment from Omni. This scrutiny was not always uncritical: though Carl Sagan was an occasional contributor from August 1979, the magazine highlighted the contrast between his image as a pure scientist and his heavy commercial self-promotion in a feature titled "The Marketing of Carl Sagan" (June 1982) by Judi Kesselman-Turkel and Franklyn Peterson. Overall, Omni was able to raise the public's awareness of scientific and technological progress in a way that made it relevant to everyday life during two decades when such developments were happening at a phenomenal rate. Between 1980 and 2000, the development of the internet, the mobile phone, computer technology and other items which we now take for granted, transformed everyone's life and turned society into what seemed a world of science fiction, with Omni at the forefront of that imagery and promotion.

Much of this was because of the enthusiasm for the subject of both Bob Guccione and Kathy Keeton and of the magazine's editors. Ben Bova had established this environment right from the start and it was continued through subsequent editors, but particularly the final editor Keith Ferrell, who was also an sf enthusiast. He not only delighted in the material that Ellen Datlow was acquiring, but he also solicited nonfiction items from sf writers, thus increasing the sf presence in the magazine. Robert Silverberg explored "The Greenhouse Effect" (July 1991) whilst Frederik Pohl was "Cruising the Eclipse" (November 1991). The October 1992 issue was something of a science-fiction special featuring a new story by Jack Williamson, "Venus is Hell", illustrated on the cover by John Berkey; an article on the new Sci Fi Channel (see Television); Frank Drake on "The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence"; and an article by Ferrell himself, "How to Build an Alien".

Despite this, after a peak circulation figure of over a million in 1988, sales steadily dropped. In October 1992 most of the staff, though not Datlow, were moved to North Carolina. There were only eleven issues of Omni in 1993, but these included the enormous fifteenth-anniversary October 1993 issue, which published Harlan Ellison's Locus Award-winning "Mefisto in Onyx". Circulation rose a little in 1994, but it was still down 25% on the 1988 figures. The problem intensified in 1994 when advertising revenue began to fall as advertisers changed their criteria for market penetration. Omni was forced to switch from the more detailed features to shorter items to satisfy advertiser requirements. This change upset readers and sales began to fall.

Various remedies were attempted, including appealing to the fringe readership with a three-part series on government cover-ups of UFO sightings, "Cosmic Conspiracy" (April-June 1994) by Dennis Stacy. Another possible money-spinner was Omni Comix, which began as an integrated section in the March 1995 issue with stories in both comic-strip and text form. It continued in the April issue, and with the interim folding of Omni was given a life of its own, though with just one standalone issue: October/November 1995. This spinoff magazine had been founded by George Caragonne (1965-1995), who was editor-in-chief of the first two issues and scripted the opening story, "High Guard" (March 1995) which was the "untold" story of America's race to the Moon. Caragonne, however, committed suicide in July 1995, and the final issue was edited by his colleague Mark McClellan. This reprinted material from the previous two issues but its main feature was an extensive preview of Larry Niven's The Ringworld Throne (1996), heavily illustrated by a variety of artists alongside a reprint of Niven's "There is a Tide" (July 1968 Galaxy; October/November 1995). Alas, Omni Comix was not so much a money-spinner as a drain on resources.

The difficulties came to a head in March 1995 when it was announced that Omni as a monthly would change to electronic publishing, to be available as Omni Online. Omni's printed version was to cease, though it was then decided to continue it as a quarterly available through newsstands only, all subscriptions being cancelled. The final monthly number was dated April 1995, and in fact only two more issues appeared, Fall 1995 and Winter 1995. Ellen Datlow continued as fiction editor of the electronic edition. However, all US editorial staff were laid off and the on-line edition was "frozen" in early 1998; the website vanished later that year.

The sudden disappearance of the print form of Omni was something of a shock and there was hope for a while, certainly while Ferrell remained as Editor-in-Chief, that it would return, but by July 1996 Ferrell had departed and Pamela Weintraub put all her energies into perpetuating the magazine online. Omni's achievements cannot be overstated. Not only was it was one of the most successful publishing ventures of its time, it revolutionized the general readership's perception and understanding of science and, thanks to its fiction editors, published some of the most memorable fiction of the period.

The first series of anthologies based on Omni began with The Best of Omni Science Fiction (anth 1980) edited by Bova and Don Myrus, which ran for six issues and included some original fiction, becoming an entity in its own right (see The Best of Omni Science Fiction). Subsequently Ellen Datlow edited three separate series starting with The First Omni Book of Science Fiction (anth 1983), The Second (anth 1983), The Third (anth 1985), The Fourth (anth 1985), The Fifth (anth 1987), The Sixth (anth 1989) and The Seventh (anth 1989) – each of the last three including one original story. Considerably more new fiction appeared in the next three volumes, all edited by Datlow and published by the company's new book line, Omni Books: Omni Best Science Fiction One (anth 1992) includes six original stories by J R Dunn, Richard Kadrey, Elizabeth A Lynn, Bruce McAllister, Paul Park and Robert Silverberg; Omni Best Science Fiction Two (anth 1992), with another six new stories, by Pat Cadigan, Maggie Flinn, Elizabeth Hand, Garry Kilworth, Lucius Shepard and Dan Simmons; and Omni Best Science Fiction Three (anth 1993) with ten original stories, by Pat Cadigan, Scott Baker, John Crowley, Thomas M Disch, Simon Ings, Ursula K Le Guin, Bruce McAllister, Ian McDonald, Pat Murphy and Gahan Wilson. Finally came Omni Visions One (anth 1993; includes 1 original story) edited by Datlow and the all-reprint Omni Visions Two (anth 1994) edited by Datlow.

There was a straightforward British edition of Omni from the start, with no difference except a British cover price and some advertisements: this ran from October 1978 to February 1980. It was followed by the singularly unimpressive Omni: Book of the Future, featuring new UK material and US reprints, edited by Jack Schofield, which was test-launched as a weekly partwork in November 1981 in the UK West Country by Eaglemoss Publications; the trial lasted only four weeks and the magazine never received national distribution. Finally, the London-based Sightline Publications launched Omni UK in Autumn 1984, edited by Jon Chambers. In the same format as the US Omni, this had a special 32-page pull-out SF Supplement with reprints of stories by Brian Aldiss and Harvey Jacobs and a new story by John Brunner, "The Day the Magic Mushrooms Took Effect". Sales were sufficiently poor that Sightline (which also published Forum and Penthouse) chose not to take up the option of a second issue.

The Spanish edition had little more success than the British. Called Alien, it ran from December 1981 to June 1982. A Japanese edition, still called Omni was much more successful and ran from May 1982 to April 1989. [MA/PN/DRL]

further reading

Fiction editors

  • Ben Bova, October 1978 to December 1979
  • Robert Sheckley, January 1980 to September 1981
  • Ellen Datlow, October 1981 to Winter 1995

Awards for fiction

  • December 1978: Harlan Ellison, "Count the Clock that Tells the Time" – short story Locus Award
  • June 1979: George R R Martin, "The Way of Cross and Dragon" – short story Hugo and Locus
  • August 1979: George R R Martin, "Sandkings" – novelette Hugo, Locus and Nebula
  • January 1984: Gardner Dozois, "Morning Child" – short story Nebula
  • January 1985: Harlan Ellison, "With Virgil Oddum at the East Pole" – short story Locus
  • January 1986: Greg Bear, "Tangents" – short story Hugo and Nebula
  • April 1986: Roger Zelazny, "Permafrost" – novelette Hugo
  • July 1987: Kate Wilhelm, "Forever Yours, Anna" – short story Nebula
  • September 1988: George Alec Effinger, "Schrödinger's Kitten" – novelette Hugo and Nebula
  • October 1989: Connie Willis, "At the Rialto" – novelette Nebula
  • November 1990: Ted Chiang, "Tower of Babylon" – novelette Nebula
  • October 1993: Harlan Ellison, "Mephisto in Onyx" – novella Locus

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