PRINT September 2014


The Mind’s Eye: The Art of Omni

Illustration for Omni, December 1992. Stanislaw Fernandes.

THIS BOOK WAS ASSEMBLED by two determined amateurs, who rescued the dusty archives of Omni magazine from abandoned storage facilities. Brian Aldiss used to say that the core moral tale of science fiction is “Hubris clobbered by Nemesis.” At a cynical glance, that would be much the story told here.

Omni was a science-fiction magazine from 1978 to 1998, and the glossiest, best-selling one, for a while. Therefore, The Mind’s Eye: The Art of Omni is very much a science-fiction art book. However, it’s science-fiction art as redefined by the capricious mind and capacious pocketbook of Bob Guccione, Omni’s publisher, who was always much better known as a porn mogul.

Guccione didn’t much care for science fiction as a genre and cared even less for its traditional fandom. He saw Omni as a useful propaganda vehicle for his expansive, liberatory, visionary side. Like many self-made media millionaires—think Citizen Kane or Roger Ailes—Guccione had a messianic streak. It wasn’t enough for him to smash prudery; he also itched to leave behind a greater public legacy—to discover the secret to medical immortality, say, or finance nuclear fusion.

Before he struck it rich with Penthouse, Guccione was a freelance cartoonist and photographer, a good-looking Italian kid from New Jersey who backpacked around Beatnik Europe, attempting, with no success, to paint. He told fortunes for beer money and briefly hung out with the Burroughs circle in Tangier. Guccione was intelligent and possessed great persuasive powers, especially where women were concerned. He was also an autodidact and a crank. Once he’d obtained everything he ever wanted—fame, fortune, and an endless supply of young women—he was convinced that he had mastered fate.Then, like many know-it-alls, Guccione cheerfully drank his own bathwater.

The 185 images in The Mind’s Eye bring one close to this tragic figure—because the eye in question is very much Guccione’s. One can almost smell the vintage Barolo in his crystal tumbler, as the noted gourmand leans, fixated, over his light table. Deftly picked for magazine reproducibility, these pics really popped on the glossy mag pages back in the heyday of the American newsstand. They even do rather well in the oversize, China-printed, 2014 edition from small press powerHouse Books. They span a hallucinatory gamut: There are swooshing armadas of overgrown spaceships; comely armor-plated cyborgs; the portentous symbolism of mushroom clouds, cosmic eggs, and neon stairways to heaven; and grandiose alien-planet landscapes that conjure a tag-team wrestling match between René Magritte and Chesley Bonestell.

No science-fiction magazine has ever boasted such high artistic standards. That’s because high standards, in either art or literature, merely get in the way of science fiction as a cultural practice. Science, the mother of sci-fi, doesn’t have artistic standards; it has standards of philosophical inquiry that science fiction perverts for psychedelic effect.

Genuine science-fiction art performs a social function for a tight-knit, ninety-year-old community. It exists to enable its viewers to achieve and maintain their highly valued otherworldly state of let’s pretend. Sci-fi art is a form of realist genre painting, like aviation art, like natural-history painting. Its cousins are comics and game design and set design, disciplines that prefer certain conventions be respected: Comics fans require the canon, gamers like to enter the game world and play, theatergoers need set design as the backdrop of performance. Art that is too heavily freighted breaks the suspension of disbelief and leaves the sci-fi fan with the awkward realization that Martians have better taste than he does. Guccione’s effort to class up sci-fi art was like trying to break-dance in a Vegas tuxedo, but he never saw the solecism there. Although he had a few veteran sci-fi illustrators within his mag—Michael Whelan, Frank Frazetta, Tim White, and glitzy-robot maestro Hajime Sorayama—it’s clear that these accomplished sci-fi professionals caught Guccione’s roving eye almost by accident.

The multimillionaire hustler clearly figured that he could hornswoggle the geeks and that their worldview should be properly a subset of his own. Omni’s visionary images do not liberate the imagination. Or rather, they do, but only in the direction that Guccione would like it to go: toward a Guccione-topia. Yet while science fiction has never lacked for influential editor-publishers or even L. Ron Hubbard–type cult leaders, Guccione never won any sci-fi acolytes. He had plenty of imitators in the porn world, but in science fiction his fantasias were fruitless; he learned nothing and he taught nothing.

Always a hard worker, Guccione chose those images while lurking within his private San Simeon. This colossal Manhattan redoubt, guarded by fourteen law firms and a Rhodesian dog pack, was unaffordable even for a multimillionaire. In short, the guy simply had it made. Guccione was a self-constructed fantasy figure; he wore cuff links made from silver rupees from the hoard of Aurangzeb, the Mughal emperor. He was blazingly ambitious, yet also a gnomic guru in his own mind. He never forgot his roots—mostly because he hired everyone in his immediate family and made them the courtiers of his media empire.

Success made Guccione oddly incurious. There’s little real speculation in these fantastic images: Everything is just as it should be. All spacecraft are gigantic and potent; all future cities are huge, elaborate, and apparently empty. The surreal is as common as pot at a progressive-rock gig, but it’s never a psyche-tearing, André Breton surrealism; it’s genteel surrealism, airbrushed and entirely suitable for dorm posters.

Machinery abounds in Omni imagery, but none of it is aspirational; it’s never the Wired-magazine fare that provoked hungry iPhone-clutching gestures in the pop-science reader. A Guccione utopian supermachine is a device of stoner idyll. You can’t possess it, improve it, hack it, upgrade it, or make it yourself, any more than you can expect a Penthouse centerfold to open as a matrimonial bureau. And the massed effect of so much trippy detachment, page after page, becomes paralytic. It has the look and feel of being Guccione’s duty-free catalogue of unobtainable Rosebud sleds. Paging through the book is like being collared by an elderly hipster who insists on spinning Tangerine Dream on vinyl while he plies you with Panama Red. It’s not that Bob’s intent is sinister; on the contrary, he’s entirely sure that, through turning you on to the good stuff, he is doing you a major favor. It’s this fault on his part that, finally, makes the collection boring.

Nothing in these pictures would cause Guccione himself to wonder what the hell was going on in the world. There is no whisper that his own prosperity and sanity might be at risk in his own cruel and unpredictable future. And a passing knowledge of Guccione’s own fate makes this book much sadder. A pop-science and sci-fi magazine was never Guccione’s own idea; it was a pet project of his favorite wife, Kathy Keeton, the brainy sultana of the Penthouse seraglio.

As the future arrived in its Reaganite gloom, and the stark realities of age crept over this hard-charging, ambitious pair, they ate enough megavitamins to turn their skins carrot orange. Keeton died of cancer in her fifties in 1997, despite all that superscience could do. Stunned with grief, Guccione grew vengeful. He drove away all his intimates, mostly through quarrels and lawsuits. He squandered his fortune. He died in 2010 at the age of seventy-nine, after years of debilitating cancer.

If the vital, imperial Bob Guccione of Omni magazine fame were to be shown this book—as an artifact, straight from his own future—he would feel a chill of sheer horror. How dreadful that his legacy should be picked up, almost by accident, from the bankrupt obscurity of some nameless storage locker! But if the much younger Bob Guccione—a fast-talking half Beatnik, twice divorced and high as a kite on kif in Tangier—if that young, downtrodden, yet hopeful Bob Guccione were shown this book, he would be thrilled to his marrow. This glossy, hashish-packed version of his half-baked visions would transform him, in one dazzling sci-fi instant, from a bad Modigliani imitator to a media Napoléon.

So it’s not so much that Hubris has a mortal enemy called Nemesis. It’s mostly a matter of the timing.

Bruce Sterling is a writer based in Austin, Belgrade, and Turin.