William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Omni magazine: a tribute

Crap. Some kind of psychobabble how-to. Crap. Romance novel, romance novel, something in a plastic binder—and it’s sticky!, ah geez—crap, crap, crap.

Wait…what’s that one. With the psychedelic cover. Do I read that right? These two guys babbling in German, holding a Huckleberry Finn, are in my way again.

I duck behind their backpacks and make a grab. Yes! The Omni Interviews. What a great score.

It’s a collection of the best interviews the magazine did, up until about 1984. And I found it at a PTA sale in a milk crate on the West side of Manhattan (foreign country to an Eastsider like me).

Ernst Mayr is in there, Francis Crick claiming that life here was seeded from beyond. Richard Leakey, Jonas Salk, Hans Bethe (who once almost ran over me in the parking lot behind the Big Red Barn). Freeman Dyson is saved until the end, naturally.

What luck to be able to find that book—Would you buy that for a quarter?. I did, for four of them.

Omni magazine! I can hear Dion Warwick singing “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” It’s hot, humid, and I’m sitting on the stoop of my grandparent’s house in Dearborn, Michigan. It’s 1979, August.

Omni, July 1979 cover

I’m reading a short story in this new magazine. It’s ridiculous. A guy notices that when people breath in synch, that soon they’re all going to die in synch. “Deep Breathing Exercises” is by somebody I’d never heard of: Orson Scott Card. Orson, if you can believe it.

I don’t remember how the hero of the story got his powers, but he came to a bad end when he noticed he was breathing in snych with everybody on a bus or a plane.

When I was 15, my family had already moved, from Detroit via Chicago, to tiny Gaylord, Michigan; population a good one thousand. Gaylord was Up North, and far from civilization. The town’s bookstore shared a billet with a shoe or blanket shop. Maybe it was snowshoes and cross country skies. Anyway, the book section was the size of a large bedroom.

It was a treat to drive thirty miles south to Graying, where they had just opened, to widespread acclaim, a new Holiday Inn with—it was almost not to be believed—an indoor pool and green room. People came from as far as Charlevoix to witness the spectacle.

Grayling had a book store not too far from the Holiday Inn. Tons of used science fiction. I got one of Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions there. Heady stuff. One story about a cursed alien who could only find relief using a bowling ball, this aptly matching his modified biological accoutrement.

The store also had copies of Omni and I snagged them all.

We boys had heard Omni was put out by the same gentleman who published Penthouse. I had never seen one of those but knew what it was. The consensus was that since the same guy ran both magazines, some of what was in one was bound to rub off on the other.

Omni’s covers were weird enough. There were art features inside, too, but unfortunately for us, not much of the Good Stuff. But it was all new and bizarre and that’s what really mattered anyway.

I didn’t understand much in the interviews since I didn’t have any training. All the big names were there. I didn’t know they were big, but they felt big. Matters of Importance was being talked about. The future was almost here. Exciting things were about the happen.

There were skeptical UFO articles. Interferon was going to be a miracle cure. Space travel’s ins and outs were explored. What would it take to colonize the moon, Mars? Games at the end.

Maybe I was too young to notice the politics: the doom and gloom and carping about socialism that has befallen, for example, Scientific American. The problems talked about in Omni could be—would be—solved. There was hopefulness drenched on every page. Their slogan: “The meek will inherit the Earth. The rest of us will go to the stars.” I’m certain that Omni helped decide my becoming a scientist.

But what really made it for me was the fiction. There were always at least two stories, some issues had a dozen. Most of it was original, not all of it was great, but so what. Anybody could write one—even James Randi took a turn! A few classics were reprinted. I first read Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons” there.

We read all of them and we discussed them. This was in the days before pretension hit science fiction. You didn’t have to be an expert in the minutiae of the field to enjoy talking about the stories. There was ne’er heard a, “You didn’t know this was one of Heinlein’s juveniles? I see.”

Those stories stuck with me. One about a guy with a watch that when pressed brought him two minutes into the past. A lot of harmless fun was had with the watch. Then another bad end; another faulty airplane. A freaky story about ant-like creatures who built some kind of effigy-city.

In 1983, I went into the service, had no money and rarely bought the magazine. Then I went to Okinawa in ’86 and lost touch with it completely. Omni hung on until 1995, but no magazine lasts forever.

I wish I still had my old copies. At least I found the Interviews.

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The best Omni site out there is this one, by Mirko Cukich of Chicago.

11 Comments

  1. I actually love the details and colors in the artwork of the magazine cover shown above. Most magazines have celebrity faces on their covers nowadays…gee, gee, gee. ^_^

  2. Brings back fond memories. I bet for fun you used to get to go see the big tree at Hartwick Pines.

  3. 1979, I remember it well, I was nine point one six seven; Still into Sleeping Beauty and arab springing down the street on the way home from school.
    You were a grown up.

  4. The short story you mention doesn’t sound great, but Orson Scott Card is one of the more well known Sci-Fi authors in history; ‘Ender’s Game’ being his flagship novel.

    Though if it is a short story, you are currently reading, and already you can’t remember how he got his power, or simple details like whether he was on a bus or plane, that kinda leads me to believe you were more skimming than reading.

  5. Briggs

    4 April 2009 at 4:34 pm

    I make it a point to only read every fifth word, John. Saves scads of time.

  6. I’ve got about two years’ worth in a box in my basement. I’m glad you reminded me, it’s about time to give them to my son.

  7. It was a big deal back then and was part of the last gasp flowering of SF (it is dying now). My old man had copies from the first one to about 88. I threw them all out last year. (He’s dead.)

  8. Orson Scott Card is alive and well here in Greensboro, NC.

    Writes a column for the local weekly The Rhino Times…

    http://greensboro.rhinotimes.com/Articles-i-2009-04-02-193367.112113_Urban_Romance_Knowing_Videophones.html

    Has a website…
    http://www.hatrack.com/

    And is the famous author of a series of Sci-Fi books, Ender’s Game, etc..

  9. On Awsome scot’sguard who everyone’s heard of,
    The passage about the man was written in the past tense, (about fifty years ago, as Briggs was only fifteen.)So it is understandable that a man in his sixties can’t remember what a story about deep breathing was about, skim or proof-read.
    Also, “can you believe..” implied to me that this man Is well known to the author of this article,even if Briggs has never heard of him in his life before, tutt, the ignorance.
    Anything you want to know about science fiction, just ask me.

  10. My memories of reading Omni also include doing so at my grandparents in the summer.

    My most memorable one was a description of the equivalences countable infinity. There was a hotel with an infinite number of rooms and an infinite number of guests. When another infinite number of guests checks in, the desk manager moves current guests into even rooms and the new guests into odd rooms…

  11. Well Briggs, at least you’ll have plenty to do when they replace you with a chimp: http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/04/monkey_see_monkey_calculate_statistics.php

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