The Brain Mutator For Higher Primates — A bOING bOING Retrospective

This article was originally written for and published at Neon Dystopia on June 13th, 2018 It has been posted here for safe keeping.

In 1988, Mark Frauenfelder and his wife Carla Sinclair started a small zine out of their apartment in Sherman Oaks, California. This wasn’t a full-time job for Frauenfelder, who studied mechanical engineering in school and worked professionally designing hard disk drives during the day. The drudgery of his work got to him, and he desperately needed a creative outlet, and that outlet would become bOING bOING.

Frauenfelder was fascinated by self-produced magazines of the time like Screamsheet and Reality Hackers, which in many ways acted as a precursor to amateur websites and blogs that permeate the Internet today. Zines were a bit different than the magazines you may pick up in a corporate bookstore. They were rough, uncensored, and often handmade by a group of amateurs having fun. Maybe you’d find some on a table at a trendy coffeehouse, or maybe the employee bathroom at work, but more often than not you would have to seek them out by mailing cash to the creators and hoping they sent something back. This wasn’t the first foray into publishing for Mark, who had created two issues of a mini-comic called Toilet Devil, and a one-issue zine titled Important Science Journal some time earlier. This new zine would be different. It would be for cool things, cyberpunk, wacky stuff, high weirdness, and anything downright crazy the husband and wife duo found interesting.

Carla Sinclair and Mark Frauenfelder.

Frauenfelder, an avid punk rock fan, enjoyed music by acts like The Ramones and The Clash throughout his youth. When asked what he liked about punk music during a 2011 interview, Mark responded, “It was the DIY aspect of the punk culture. You didn’t need to have expensive equipment or a record contract. I also liked the primitive sound. It’s hard to say, but as soon as I heard it, I loved it.” In many ways, the new zine would mirror punk culture and the DIY aesthetic: it wasn’t perfect, there wasn’t any backing or stability— it was raw and unfiltered and noisy and fun.

As a child, Frauenfelder was drawn to computers and comics, which eventually inspired his love of all things geeky and his fascination with alternative media. He first learned about zines from the Winter 1987 issue of Whole Earth Review titled “Signal” (co-edited by Kevin Kelly, who would later be among the founders of Wired magazine) in which an article explained the concept of zines and even mentioned a zine directory (which was actually a zine itself!) titled Factsheet Five. Frauenfelder ordered a copy and immediately sent away for as many zines as he could.

The first issue was layed out before the pair needed to move to Boulder, Colorado in 1989. Carla took on the role of editor, which she would retain for the run of the magazine, while Mark settled into the co-editor/publisher position. Packed full of cyberpunk sci-fi, underground comix, and mind-altering media, Carla xerox’d about 100 issues of the 36-page zine, and began to distribute it. The first issue was a trip: there was an interview with futurist Robert Anton Wilson, a comic about taking LSD, and a libertarian-cyberpunk manifesto titled “Crossbows to Cryptography: Techno-Thwarting the State!”, amongst others. bOING bOING, the World’s Greatest Neurozine, was born!

bOING bOING issue 1 (1989) cover. Read the whole issue here.

Stop right there. I can already see the candy-colored cogs in your brain cranking away trying to understand the text you just sucked off the page. bOING bOING… as in Boing Boing… as in boingboing.net, the popular group blog that arguably pioneered blogging as a concept in the early days of the Internet. Few people know that Boing Boing started its life as a humble zine, printed on dead-tree paper— not electronic bits ethereally whirling around the ‘net. Boing Boing may now be a staple of the Internet for those interested in science fiction, futurism, technology, and left-wing politics, but 30 years ago, it was a brand new zine called (and stylized as) bOING bOING.

bOING bOING stayed in Colorado for several issues and were hitting their stride as distribution ramped up. They refined their manic, madcap, eclectic style to become the premier net rag, full of punk attitude and sassy style. While the first issue of the magazine featured content from a handful of technoid misfits, the contributions were soon creeping in from all over. Back before the Internet, zines had to rely on a combination of luck and word-of-mouth to be successful. You could distribute copies of your zine to your friends, send them to other zines you like in the hopes that they’d review it, or trade them with others to spread far and wide. If it was any good, you’d have insatiable, bug-eyed mutants clamoring for more. If it was bad, it would fizzle out, and be all but lost to time. Early contributors for bOING bOING included science fiction authors like Paul Di Filippo and Rudy Rucker, as well as cyberculture writers and zine editors like Going Gaga helm Gareth Branwyn and FringeWare Review wizards Paco Nathan and Jon Lebkowsky. Within the zine microcosm, bOING bOING was a hit!

Mark Frauenfelder pasting paper together to assemble copies of bOING bOING issue 2 (1990). Read the whole issue here.

It is important to understand just how much cyberpunk influence bOING bOING was amassing in this early period of publication. Just three years before bOING bOING’s first issue, Bruce Sterling edited the acclaimed Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986), featuring short stories by prominent, front-wave authors in the cyberpunk subgenre. bOING bOING would go on to feature articles by authors from this anthology such as Rudy Rucker, Marc Laidlaw, Paul Di Filippo, John Shirley, and even Sterling himself. Others such as William Gibson and Lewis Shiner would ultimately be interviewed. Di Filippo in particular would even use bOING bOING Second issue as a launching point to share his ideas on a half-serious new subgenre he was developing called “ribofunk,” a blend of “ribosome” and “funk” (a direct response to “cyberpunk”), that acted as a prototype for what we would later come to call “biopunk.”

Around the time that Mirrorshades was hitting hardback, before bOING bOING launched, Mark and Carla would run into R.U. Sirius and Queen Mu selling the poster-sized second issue of their High Frontiers zine (a psychedelic counter-culture zine which would eventually morph into the cyberpunk Mondo 2000 a few years later) at a Timothy Leary show in San Francisco. Frauenfelder vividly describes the duo by stating “RU was this grinning hobbit-looking character with a floppy hat with a Andy Warhol button on it. Queen Mu was a very delicate blond woman with Stevie Nicks clothes and granny glasses and she [had] a permanent blissful smile and didn’t say much.” After buying a copy of their zine, Mark and Carla would attend High Frontiers Monthly Forum events in Berkeley thrown by R. U. and Mu, eventually meeting like-minded cyberpunks and tuned-on mutants such as author Rudy Rucker and future Mondo 2000 art director Bart Nagel. The friendship between the group grew, with both Rucker and Sirius eventually writing for bOING bOING.

R.U. Sirius and Timothy Leary.

bOING bOING covered culture in a no—holds-barred way. No topic seemed too taboo or salacious or untouchable. Drugs, kinky sex, and absurd humor littered the pages— sometimes comprising the entire issue. You could get the latest news about the ‘net, independant comics, goth culture, punk music reviews, and everything in between. You might see a cyberpunk short story sharing a spread with a Schwa alien cartoon or recruitment advertisement from Church of the SubGenius. bOING bOING dripped with Gen X culture, and as with Frauenfelder, appealed to those fed up churning in a stuffy office all day or burning out in their McJob. bOING bOING, like a lot of technology-soaked publications of the ’80s, followed a natural evolution with roots in the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s. Instead of the dirty, free-loving and peace-wheeling hippies, bOING bOING was more in tune with the punks of ’77 who scornfully rejected the old political idealism and subconscious with a rebellious, no-bullshit attitude. Music, culture, and technology were getting more personal; the milieu was different. The average bOING bOING reader was more likely reading Amok Dispatch (1986) rather than the Whole Earth Catalog (1969), and listening to Black Flag instead of the Grateful Dead. Kerouac made way for Coupland. This was something new— this was theirs.

For issue eight, their first with full color, Frauenfelder and Sinclair moved back to California. They didn’t stick around in one place for too long, pin-balling from Hollywood to Los Angeles to San Francisco, and eventually back to L.A. throughout the remaining years of the zine. bOING bOING was booming throughout this period, and benefited from an influx of cash attributed to Mark being employed to design Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk (1993) album. While in Los Angeles (the first time), Frauenfelder was offered a job as a writer at a small magazine startup, also run by a husband and wife team, called Wired. “They saw Boing Boing and they really liked it,” Mark has said previously, “so they called me up and asked if I could come work for them as an editor and inject some of Boing Boing’s sensibility into the magazine.” The couple relocated to San Francisco, and set up bOING bOING on the first floor of the Wired building, then located at 544 2nd Street.

Wiley Wiggins who you may remember as Mitch Kramer in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) was also actively involved in early ’90s cyberculture. He wrote for bOING bOING as well as Mondo 2000 and FringeWare Review.

Wired released its first issue in 1993, but before that, it was just a group of writers and publishers trying to throw together a new concept for a generation of MTV-watching punks, immersed in the fresh world of cyber-culture. Publisher and co-founder of Wired, Louis Rossetto, pitched his magazine concept by saying, “We’re trying to make a magazine that feels as if it has been mailed back from the future.” This fit in nicely with Frauenfelder’s style. The Wired building was truly a melting pot of San Francisco culture in the early ’90s. Wired had recently moved from the first floor, a large, open, warehouse-like space, to the second floor when it needed something roomier. bOING bOING moved into Wired’s old digs in the corner of the gigantic room, which was already buzzing with activity from other independent zine makers in the Bay Area. Other publications sharing the space included Dave Egger’s Might (a magazine aimed at Generation X), Just Go! (a travel magazine), Hum (a magazine for young South Asians), CUPS (a more eclectic culture zine), and Star Wars Universe (I think you can figure this one out). Mark continued to work on bOING bOING while also netting income from the burgeoning Wired, though Carla took over most of the production at this time. Issue 9 of bOING bOING would become notable with such content as an interview with Bruce Sterling about his new book The Hacker Crackdown (1993), a regular music column by Richard Kadrey, and a 7-page pastiche of Mondo 2000 (starting on the back cover, so it actually looks like a Mondo 2000 issue when upside down) featuring articles with titles like “I’m Gonna Morph You Up,” and “Virtual Neural Jacks.”

Cover and first page of the mONDO mONDO parody in bOING bOING issue 9 (1992). Read the whole issue here.

By this time, issues began to feel more and more refined— both in content and physical appearance. Once printed on cheap paper, the zine now had dazzling, glossy covers, and was filled with content from a loyal band of the fringe-elite. bOING bOING never seemed to lose its quirky, geeky, out-there edge that had been so crucial in cultivating the zine’s culture and feel. At its peak, bOING bOING reached a circulation of 17,500 issues. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever.

By 1995, bOING bOING would release what many might consider its last “regular” issue, though the year also marks what many would say is a much more crucial event for bOING bOING: the launch of its website, which we can still visit some 23 years later. Behind the scenes, the independent printing industry was changing for the worst. In 1994, shortly before this penultimate issue of bOING bOING was released, the two largest independent magazine distributors in the country went bankrupt. bOING bOING ended up losing about $30,000 because of this, causing delays in the production of another issue. While the launch of boingboing.net may be seen as a deathblow to the zine, it might have actually been the only thing that saved it. It was clear that publishing on paper was not going to be a long term solution. Publishing on the ‘net could be done for free.

The print zine may have been fading, but that doesn’t mean the culture built around it was left to decay. 1995 became a year of handbooks. Aligning with The Real Cyberpunk Fakebook, a satirical cyberpunk handbook written by select Mondo 2000 staff, Frauenfelder, Sinclair, and bOING bOING regular Gareth Brawnwyn collaborated on the 205-page Happy Mutant Handbook, a guide to offbeat pop culture. Sinclair would also release her first book, Net Chick: A Smart-Girl Guide to the Wired World, an optimistic yet sassy guide for women carving out their place in the early days of the web. Further, Frauenfelder was continuing to work for Wired where he would attain the position of editor. bOING bOING ultimately released its final print issue, #15, in 1997 after a two year hiatus. Unlike previous issues, this one more closely resembled a book, with more standard binding and a squarish appearance; the contents however were the same weird and wacky that bOING bOING was known for.

The Happy Mutant Handbook (1995) was actually designed by Georgia Rucker, author Rudy Rucker’s daughter! Read the whole book here.

Frauenfelder would eventually leave Wired in 1998, following his tenure there with a stint as the “Living Online” columnist for Playboy from 1998 to 2002, a job he was recommended for by Playboy editor and former zinester Chip Rowe (who had published Chip’s Closet Cleaner in the early ’90s). Later, Frauenfelder would become editor-in-chief for Make: magazine, a DIY/hobbyist bimonthly, while also producing a few books before settling into a role at the Institute for the Future as a research director. He also serves as Editor-in-Chief and podcast co-host with Kevin Kelly (again, of Wired and Whole Earth Review fame) at Cool Tools, a site about the tried-and-test tools and gadgets. Sinclair would later publish a technothriller, Signal to Noise (1997), and become editor-in-chief of a Make: spin-off magazine titled Craft: which ran from 2006 to 2009. Frauenfelder still maintains top position on the boingboing.net masthead, along with bOING bOING zine regular David Pescovitz. Carla has contributed to the site as recently as 2016, but additional writing is currently provided by Cory Doctorow, Xeni Jardin, and Rob Beschizza.

In May 2011, Frauenfelder would publish a bOING bOING anthology of favorite interviews from the zine era in a free, online-only PDF file. “The first few issues of Boing Boing had print runs in the low hundreds, and the biggest was 17,500 copies. Today, the blog easily gets that many page views in an hour,” Frauenfelder states in the the article announcing the anthology. The zine may be gone, but its legacy lives on through boingboing.net. “I think I’ll always be involved in some media. Who knows what Boing Boing will evolve into. But, I kind of imagine that it might not be too different than it is now,” Frauenfelder says in a 2012 interview, “I see myself continuing to make Boing Boing into an even better experience for its audience.”

For me, it can’t get much better than a three-color zine made by a husband and wife team exploring the weird and wonderful world. I only became aware of bOING bOING a few years back when I was searching for issues of Mondo 2000, and stumbled upon it quite accidentally. Before long, I was able to track down almost every issue and began to scan them, page by page, in an attempt to save them for future generations. I never did find the first two issues for purchase, but luckily I uncovered some PDFs of them online that were scanned at some point by Frauenfelder himself many years ago! After my scanning was complete, I uploaded each issue to the Internet Archive where you can download or browse them today, completely free. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few interactions with Mark Frauenfelder online after this, and he’s always been quick to answer my obscure questions about the old days and provide new insights. bOING bOING, the zine, remains a point of pride for him and he seems to love sharing it. It was and is something he loved, and he was there to see it mutate, evolve, and grow over time, while he did the same.

The print is dead, but the brain jack is warm. You can always go online.


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Recollecting The Future— An Omni Retrospective

This article was originally written for and published at Neon Dystopia on June 28th, 2017. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

The first time I read anything out of Omni, I probably had a completely different experience than you did. The original run of Omni, the iconic science and science fiction magazine, ran in print from 1978 to 1995, ending when I was just four years old. The first time I eyed the pages was maybe only five years ago — on my computer screen, with issues batch-downloaded from the Internet Archive back when you could find them there. While I didn’t get that feeling that comes with curling, sticky-with-ink pages between my fingers, or the experience of artificial light reflecting off of the glossy artwork and into my retinas, I was able to ingest the rich content all the same. While there is something sterile and antiseptic about reading magazine scans from a computer, there is more to say about reading Omni, in particular, this way; what the readers have been dreaming about since the publication’s inception has become reality. I have a whole archive of Omni issues that I can take with me everywhere in my pocket. To reference an oft-used quote from Ben Bova, previous editor of Omni, “Omni is not a science magazine. It is a magazine about the future.” The future is now, and maybe some things did end up changing for the better.

The iconic Omni logo.

Omni (commonly stylized as OMNI) got its start in a rather interesting way back in the late 1970s. Publisher Kathy Keeton, who had previously founded Viva (1973), an adult magazine aimed at women, and held a high-ranking position at the parent company for Penthouse (1965), proposed an idea for a new type of scientific magazine to Penthouse founder and her future husband, Bob Guccione. Keeton and Guccione would develop the concept of a magazine focusing on science, science fiction, fantasy, parapsychology, and the paranormal. It was a departure from both the over-the-top, pulp science fiction magazines of the 1940s and stiff academic scientific journals of the time aimed at pipe-smoking professionals in three-piece suits. Omni was aimed more at the layperson in that its content was accessible yet serious — they bought into their own brand and expected you to as well.

Guccione and Keeton, image via dailymail.co.uk

A strange departure from the pornographic roots of both Keeton and Guccione, Omni was a completely new beast, eccentric and untried. While other science publications looked to ground their content in what was concrete, Omnifocused on the future with wonder and a sense of possibility. An issue may contain irreverent, gonzo articles about alien abductions, chemical synthesis of food, what personality traits should be given to robots, thoughts on becoming a cyborg, or the computer-centric musings of lunatic/genius Ted Nelson. You could find articles on drugs back-to-back with discussions of high-tech surgical procedures or homebrew aeronautics. No topic was off limits, and with decent rates for writers, the weird had a chance to turn pro. Whether it was intentional or not, Omni adopted a laid-back, transgressive west coast culture that praised the strange and favored the “out there.”  For a lot of readers in the late 1970’s, this was the only place to get this type of content. People couldn’t pull out a cell phone and hop online to get the vast swathes of information that we can now – there was an ever-present undertone of information isolation, and Omni filled the void.

Omni‘s premier issue, October 1978.

While the magazine was well known for its articles and comprehensive interviews with the scientific elite such as Future Shock (1970) author Alvin Toffler or astrophysicist Carl Sagan, the most flirtatious quality of Omni was its illustrations. Slick and glossy, Omni never failed to draw a shy eye from a newsstand with bright colors and airbrushed art of feminine androids or lush mindscapes in high contrast. Many notable artists contributed their work to Omni, including John Berkey, H.R. Giger, and De Es Schwertberger. For each issue, the gold-chain-wearing Guccione would be said to personally pick the featured art; each image was part of what he wanted to convey with the magazine, and it might be more than a coincidence that many of the covers featured women. Omni wasn’t the only publication of the time with intricate cover art, as Heavy Metal (1977) featured similarly detailed depictions, and even shared some of the same artists. Where Omni really set itself apart from others was through the use of artwork throughout the periodical as a whole. With sprawling, multi-page illustrations, the art didn’t take a backseat to the articles. Just flipping through, someone might think that they had picked up an art magazine; Omni was never one to skimp on the visuals.

H.R. Giger’s Dune concept art would grace the cover of Omni‘s November 1978 issue.

Above all of the articles and artwork, Omni may have been most celebrated for its short fiction. At its inception, nobody really knew how to react to Omni’s foray into the science fiction ecosphere. The SF community was tight-knit and amiable, but it wasn’t exactly used to sleek publications from groups that had no background in the subject showing up suddenly in bookstores and comic shops. Keeton and Guccione did their homework and hired notable editors, Ellen Datlow and Ben Bova (a six-time Hugo Award winner during tenure as editor of Analog Magazine (1930)), to seek out content for publishing. Like Bova, Datlow was a fan of the genre herself and wasn’t afraid to push the envelope when it came to buying far-out fiction. The magazine came to showcase science fiction for science fiction fans, and didn’t subdue or water down the content for the sake of a broader audience – the bottom line was never sacrificed. With contributors like Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, Isaac Asimov, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, George R.R. Martin, and William S. Burroughs, there were not only excerpts from larger works but complete short stories introduced to the world for the first time. William Gibson notably published “Burning Chrome” (1982), “New Rose Hotel” (1984), and “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981) through Omni, creating the foundation for the Sprawl that would later host some of his most celebrated novels: Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). Omni helped launch the careers of many science fiction authors, and fostered exposure for countless others over its near three-decade reign.

The first page of William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome,” featured in Omni‘s July 1982 issue.

Omni thrived for many years as it continued to dazzle readers with exciting and thought-provoking composition. Eventually, Omni would get its own short-lived television show, Omni: The New Frontier (1981), a webzine on Compuserve, and six international editions with varied amounts of both reprinted and original articles. Later in the publication’s life, the articles took a more paranormal slant that left many fans and contributors wondering about the magazine’s direction. Keeton and Guccione had always held a lot of interest in the paranormal and found a kindred spirit in their editor-in-chief, Keith Ferrell, who took up the position in Omni’s twilight years. While Ferrell wanted to shift Omni’s focus towards the vetting of the unexplained, the magazine couldn’t sustain itself for much longer. Omni published its last print issue in the Winter of 1995, citing rising production costs. At the time, Omni had a circulation of 700,000 subscribers, many of whom were left high and dry if they hadn’t already abandoned the publication with the recent shift in focus. While it is unknown whether or not production costs were to blame for Omni’s demise, many surmise Guccione’s strategy of funding Omni via Penthouse’s profits was starting to fall apart. While free Internet pornography flourished in the 1990’s, it put the older print industry in jeopardy. The ship was sinking, and something would need to be thrown overboard before the situation would get any better for the Penthouse empire.

“Some of Us May Never Die,” article by Kathleen Stein, October 1978.

Omni did not disappear completely, and successfully transitioned into an online-only magazine dubbed Omni Internet in 1996. At the time, there were few examples of magazines who could make the jump to digital. Omni embraced the new format which allowed them to play with how content was structured and draw in fans with interactive chat sessions. While a conventional magazine could only be published once a month, Omni could now report on scientific news as it happened, setting a standard in web-based journalism that we still see today. This was a “blog” before Jon Barger coined the term the following year, and it holds a spot as an early example of the format. In 1997, Kathy Keeton died due to complications from surgery and Omni closed down completely just six months later. While Omni was the brainchild of both Keeton and Guccione, Keeton had always been the main driving force that held all of the moving parts together. The publication that always promised to bring the future would now become static, slowly fading into the past with each passing year. While no new content was published, the site remained online until 2003, when Guccione’s publishers filed for bankruptcy.

AOL welcomes you to Omni Online, one of Omni‘s first forays into the web. Image via http://14forums.blogspot.com

While Omni may have ceased production, its strong legacy cannot be questioned. While fans wax rhapsodic about the old days, there are plenty of remnants left over that have diffused the iconic Omni spirit to new generations. Wired (1993) owes just as much to Omni as it does its precursor, Language Technology (1986), as well as Mondo 2000 (1989), bOING bOING (1988), and Whole Earth Review (1985). While Wired didn’t rely on science fiction, it still yearned for a techno-utopian future and even hired on some Omni expatriate short fiction writers to become reporters for the new digital revolution. Later in 2005, a much-unknown omnimagazine.com was launched, claiming to be cared for by former staff and contributors of Omni, including Ellen Datlow, the fiction editor who worked at Omni for nearly its entire run. In 2008, the website io9 was created by Gawker Media (Later a property of Gizmodo) specifically to cover science and science fiction, just as Omni had done decades before. io9’s slogan, “We come from the future,” echoes Ben Bova’s Omni quote, and helps cultivate an image of the site as a spiritual successor.

Wired issue #1 from March, 1993. The cover features an article by science fiction writer and Omni contributor Bruce Sterling.

In 2010, Bob Guccione passed away at the age of 79 following a battle with lung cancer. While Guccione’s death didn’t immediately influence the future of Omni, it set off an interesting chain of events that would ultimately lead to a rebirth of the publication. In 2012, businessman Jeremy Frommer bought a series of storage lockers in Arizona, one of which happened to contain a large amount of Guccione’s estate. Frommer was enamored by his discovery and immediately fell down the strange and multifaceted rabbit hole of Guccione’s mind. With the help of his childhood friend, producer Rick Schwartz, Frommer started building The Guccione Archive in a nondescript New Jersey building. Out of the entirety of Guccione’s life work, Frommer became fixated on Omni and explored the collection of production materials, pictures, 35-mm slides, and original notes generated from the life of the magazine. It wasn’t long before he brought in others to sort the collection and track down original artwork used for Omni that he could purchase and add to the archive. For Frommer, it became a passion to create the most complete collection of Omni-related materials, and he had to get his hands on every bit he could find.

Artwork like this Di Maccio piece showcasing”Psychic Warriors,” by Ronald M. McRae was being tracked down to add to the archive.

Organically, Frommer came to the conclusion that he needed to take the next logical step: he needed to reboot the magazine. When Claire Evans, pop singer and editor of Vice Media’s Motherboard blog, met with Frommer to cover the Omni collection, she was asked if she would be interested in working on a new Omni incarnation. In August 2013, Evans was named editor-in-chief of Omni Reboot and got to work. The new publication was off to a strong start as Evans was able to get submissions and interviews from former Omni alumni and science fiction icons like Ben Bova, Rudy Rucker, and Bruce Sterling. Free scans of Omni back issues were made available at the Internet Archive, and the blood once again flowed through Omni’s withered veins. Nostalgia was in full force as people rediscovered their favorite article or got caught up in the whole journey of the reboot. Quickly though, criticism came in about the quality of the content and what would become of the Omni legacy under the new owners. Not everyone thought the magazine should be rebooted.

An Excerpt from “Hi Everyone. Welcome to the New Omni,” by Claire Evans served as the introductory article to Omni Reboot (August 2013).

While Omni Reboot still conformed to the science and science fiction roots of the original, it did so with a higher dose of cynicism than even the original obtained. When the old fantasies of science and technology started to become reality, it was only natural for people to consider how the world around them could grow to bite its master and send civilization into a negative spiral. In many cases, it already had. In contrast, the zeitgeist 40 years ago slanted more towards the hopeful idyllic; people used to have conversations about how an advancement would influence mankind and drive the world ahead. That’s not to say everything back then was so hunky dory – we always see the past through rose-colored colored glasses, smoothing over the corruptions and jagged edges in our memories. While the world aged and evolved, so did opinions towards its technocentric trajectory. Etherealism was no longer en vogue.

As the reboot grew it started to come under fire from authors as it was discovered that submitted work would become owned by Jerrick Media, Omni Reboot’s new parent, for a year after publication. Further fueling controversy, the back issues of Omni on the Internet Archive were removed in 2015, much to the disappointment of readers. In 2016, Jerrick Media released Vocal, a publishing platform for freelance writers to make money based on article views. Omni Reboot(now just Omni) was re-purposed as one of Vocal’s verticals, serving as an interface for science and science fiction related submissions from the Vocal content network. Browsing Omni now, there is an overwhelming, uneasy feeling of quantity over quality. A name that once stood proudly and represented a home for the weird and futuristic had become just a limb on a larger, alien body.

Omni’s current homepage, via omni.media

A few weeks ago in May of 2017, we got another chance to relive the rich history of Omni as back issues became available once again. Unlike the older Internet Archive scans, these new transfers are in high resolution, with each and every issue accounted for. Also unlike the older transfers, each issue costs $2.99 for a digital copy, though they are free if you happen to be a Kindle Unlimited subscriber. While it’s bittersweet that these issues are now available for pay, profits from their sales are going to a good cause. Omni announced a partnership with the Museum of Science Fiction who receive a portion of the revenue from each purchase.

Cover of Omni‘s February 1987 issue. Just one of many back issues that are now available for purchase.

While Omni has changed many times over the years, it is still remembered as that wondrous and weird, crazy and cool publication delivered to mailboxes month after month. Omni worked best because it didn’t try to fit into an existing space, it pioneered its own; It became a destination that amalgamated the new, the scary, and the unknown. In the true Omnispirit, we have no idea what is coming for the publication as the clock ticks ahead. Will it thrive and continue on, or become another ghost in the machine, slowly obsolescing.

The future is ahead of us, and for now, we can only look to it with hope and wonder.

We can only look to it just like Omni would want us to.

 

‘More Than Just A Game’– Brainscan Review

This article was originally written for and published at Neon Dystopia on May 22nd, 2017. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

In the mid-1990’s, we saw cinema saturated with cyberpunk movies. Some became staples of the genre, while others simply faded into obscurity. Brainscan (1995) combines elements of cyberpunk and horror, to create a unique story about a video game gone wrong. While not a particularly successful film, Brainscan turns out to be an interesting extension to the classic “killer computer” trope. At a time when owning a computer has become normal for your average household, it’s easy to ponder how things could go wrong, especially in the style of a Twilight Zone fever dream.

Upon watching, Brainscan instantly makes you feel uneasy with its instrumental score, and it is something you will notice over the course of the entire film. The electronic music quickly fills any scene with dread, reminiscent of 1978’s “Halloween Theme Main Title” (from the film of the same name) by John Carpenter. Coupled with a dark color palette, the mood is set and unchanging. While the film definitely exhibits a horror-themed, fanciful atmosphere, make no mistake about its ties to the cyberpunk aesthetic. Technology, and our inherent fear in embracing it (as a species), sits center stage for the full run of the story. Likely influenced by publications of the time such as Mondo 2000, we get a taste of the cyberdelic lunatic fringe.

When our protagonist Michael (Edward Furlong) is told about a horror-filled video game that interfaces with a player’s subconscious, he’s eager to call up the phone number printed in a Fangoria advertisement to place an order. His appetite for blood and gore is insatiable, but the game isn’t what he bargained for. Furlong gives an excellent performance, tapping into some of the same themes exhibited by his Terminator 2 character, John Connor, a few years earlier. Michael himself easily fills the role of the smart high school student. He has a voice-controlled computer, Igor, which he primarily uses to place and take phone calls. Red-light-drenched computer hardware spans a large section of his attic bedroom, including an interface to his video camera which he uses to spy on the neighbor-cum-love-interest, Kimberly (Amy Hargreaves). You may call him an introvert, or a misfit — he has few friends and even less family but seems close to his best friend, Kyle (Jamie Marsh).

The bedroom of my teenage dreams.

Upon calling Brainscan, Michael is told about the innovative, fully-customized game and gets electrically shocked before the mysterious voice on the other end of the line tells him that his game has been decided and the first disc will be mailed to him. At this point, I liken Michael to transgressive characters of other films, such as Thomas Anderson / Neo of The Matrix (1999) or David Lightman of WarGames (1984), who transcend connotations of the 1950’s idyllic and its three-piece psychology. In fact, I’d stress that there are a lot of parallels between this film and WarGames — the technophile wiz-kid finds a mysterious phone number which ultimately wreaks havoc on his life. When the first Brainscan disc shows up in the mail, things take a dark turn when Michael boots it up and is instantly transported into the game, seemingly immersed by the “subconscious interface” which creates something akin to an out-of-body experience. In a first-person view, Michael is instructed by a methodical, disembodied voice to commit a murder, which he dutifully complies with. When Michael sees the news the following day, he quickly realizes that the murder was real. The virtual reality has leaked over into the natural world, and the line between them starts to become fuzzy.

The first disc arrives.

At this point, Michael gets a visit from the Trickster (T. Ryder Smith), who materializes out of thin air in his bedroom. Trickster, resembling an undead hard rock front-man, seems to know everything about Brainscan and urges Michael to keep playing until he completes the entire game. If Michael has been a middling character up until now, toeing the line between a rebel and a complaisant, we see him reevaluate his morality as the Trickster begins to impose more and more chaos in Michael’s life. Michael isn’t only pitted against Trickster, but the game itself which Trickster seems to be connected to. He’s lashing out against the technology that has betrayed him but is helpless in combating it.

The Trickster will threaten you with a CD.

*Spoilers Ahead*

Michael is worried about getting caught and reluctantly agrees to keep playing Brainscan in order to tie up any loose ends that may implicate him in his crime. Feeling like he has no other options, Michael continues to kill before standing up to Trickster and refusing to commit a final act. Disappointed by Michael’s act of defiance, Trickster allows the police to shoot and kill Michael. Michael has finally broken out from the game and immediately wakes up in his chair just as he did after playing for the first time. The whole experience was just part of the game, and none of it actually took place. Realizing this, Michael completely destroys all of his computer equipment, symbolically freeing himself of his technological imperative and escapist tendencies.

Complete destruction.

While Brainscan doesn’t incorporate many cyberpunk visuals, it certainly captures the essence of cyberpunk itself. Much like Black Mirror’s “Playtest” episode, we see a main character who seems to detach from reality and chooses to escape into technology to chase a high that he cannot derive from the physical world. While Michael may not fit seamlessly into a generation of young adults who have complete access to information and media, he exhibits traits that make him susceptible to escapist behavior and the dangers that go with it. Exploring his infatuation with high-tech entertainment, we become aware of what can happen when fantasies overlap with reality. Can we expect similar real-world stories to come forward as virtual reality worlds become more immersive and realistic? Maybe we don’t even have to go that far. Is it a stretch to consider that players of conventional video games have difficulty disassociating with them after putting down the controller? Little stops these experiences from bleeding over into our day-to-day lives, especially for the self-actualizing who may be hesitant or unable to make the distinction.

Are you ready to play?

While the premise of Brainscan certainly fits within the cyberpunk genre, the film is not without its shortcomings. Furlong and Smith give notable performances, though the supporting characters are more one-dimensional. At 22 years old, the physical technology we see is laughably dated at times, despite the topical concerns brought up by the story. Brainscan would never win any awards, but it’s a fun guilty pleasure that you want to keep watching. Just make sure you don’t order any video games out of a magazine anytime soon.

Brainscan – 6/10