Is a robot shoveling your snow?
I once knew the answer to this question. For anyone who was raised in the '70s and never had a date in the '80s or who thought the 2000s would look like a cross between a Yes album cover and Journey concert T-shirt, Omni magazine was essential reading—one with a ready answer to all your robot and rocket questions. And to a 10-year old getting a subscription for Christmas in 1979, Omni was The Future.
The magazine was a lushly airbrushed, sans-serif, and silver-paged vision dreamed up by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione and his wife, Kathy Keeton. It split the difference between the consumerist Popular Science—which always seemed to cover hypersonic travel and AMC carburetors in the same page—and the lofty Scientific American, whose rigor was alluring but still impenetrable to me. But with equal parts sci-fi, feature reporting, and meaty interviews with Freeman Dyson and Edward O. Wilson, Omni's arrival every month was a sort of peak nerd experience.
"Omni was different," the erstwhile Penthouse publisher mused in his first editorial for the magazine. "It was a creation of pure joy."
Guccione had plenty to joyful about: commercially, Omni really did look like the future. Its October 1978 debut had what was then the largest number of ad pages for any newly launched magazine in history. By the following month, the New York Times and the Economist both had their own Science sections. And when Guccione watched his circulation quickly soar to around 850,000—most in the coveted 18-34 demographic—his magazine looked as if it was here to stay.
But the only place you'll find Omni for sale today is in a junk shop or on eBay. 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.") It was in a 1981 Omni piece that William Gibson coined the word "cyberspace," while the provoking lede "For this I spent two thousand dollars? To kill imaginary Martians?" exhorted Omni-readers to go online in 1983—where, they predicted, everything from entire libraries to consumer product reviews would soon migrate. A year later, the magazine ran one of the earliest accounts of telecommuting with Doug Garr's "Home Is Where the Work Is," which might have also marked the first appearance of this deathless standby of modern reportage: "I went to work in my pajamas."
Then again, that same issue predicted the first moon colony in 2010; supplied with "water in the shadowed craters of the moon's north pole" (not a bad guess), it might be attacked by "space-based Soviet particle-beam weapons."
Amid these features, a fine "games" column, and lush art essays like the "7 Wonders of the Universe"—which included an orbiting Yonkers Airport—the silver-paged Continuum section ran peppy science items not unlike today's In Brief section of New Scientist. (In fact, the two magazines shared some DNA via editor Bernard Dixon.) Not only did Omni sci-fi contributors include a veritable hall of fame—Bradbury, Asimov, Dick, Heinlein, Clarke, Gibson, Sterling—the magazine also featured women writers and editors to a degree that still puts most magazines to shame. Ursula K. LeGuin and Dava Sobel were early contributors, as was Joyce Carol Oates.
That mix of sci-fi and science reporting was telling. 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.
There was even a short-lived Omni TV series—still viewable on YouTube with an affably boozy-looking Peter Ustinov hosting—and an Omni Future Almanacpublished in 1982. The almanac is a retro delight: Its soothsaying ranged from global warming and a wireless "data terminal inside the home, [where] one could have access to all the volumes within the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library" (Google Books!) to predictions of a France-to-Libya water pipeline and 100 mpg averages for cars. "By 2000," it solemnly predicted, "Sweden will have a largely automated robot society." Also, by now we should be having a space crime wave.