Isaac Asimov on a United States postage stamp?
Theres a campaign going on to bring about just that. You can find out more about it, and what you can do to put the Good Doctors lavishly bewhiskered face on our postage, by going to <http://www. geocities.com/Area51/Vault/4986/asimovstamp>.
(And theres a fine, resounding twenty-first-century address for you, one that the creator of Susan Calvin and R. Daneel and so many other famed futuristic characters would surely find thrilling. Nothing so mundane, so prosaic, so old hat, as P.O. Box xxx, Church Street Station, New York, NY. Oh, noArea51/Vault/4986, and dont forget the slashes. But if you dont want to bother keying in all that, just google for "asimovstamp" and youll go right to it. Poor Isaac, to have missed out on all the delicious complexities of the http://www world!)
If such a stamp were to be issued, we science-fictioneers would, of course, savor a reversion to archaic postal methods for at least a little while, for the sheer fun of seeing Isaac looking back up at us from the envelope that were about to mail. We wouldnt, of course, be communicating with each other that way, since we are all, by now, thoroughly enmeshed in the point-and-click e-mail world. But we could pay our utility bills with Isaac stamps, we could stick them on our credit-card payments, we could plaster them on the letters we write to members of Congress demanding immediate manned expeditions to the Moon, wewe
An Isaac stamp? What a wonderful notion! Is it really something that could happen, though?
The Postal Service rules say that no commemorative stamps can be issued in honor of living people. Thats why there are, so far, no Jimmy Carter postage stamps, no Ronald Reagan stamps, none honoring Barry Bonds or Clint Eastwood or John Glenn. Other countries have no compunction about honoring their heroes of the moment right in the middle of their fifteen minutes of Warholian fame, but we require a certain mellowing period first.
Isaac, though, has been gone from our midst since 1992, more than enough time to qualify him for philatelic immortality. And who among the readership of this magazine would be so rash as to say he doesnt deserve that immortality?
Consider some of the people who already have been on United States postage stamps. There was, back in 1940, a long series of Famous Americans stamps, which included such people as Mark Twain, Washington Irving, Eli Whitney, Alexander Graham Bell, Booker T. Washington, and John Philip Sousa, whose names are (I hope) all still recognizable to modern-day Americans, but also some, like Ethelbert Nevin, Daniel Chester French, and Crawford Long, who perhaps were not exactly household names sixty-odd years ago and who by this time are quiz-program material. Fame is a sometime thing, sometimes.
I also find, leafing back through the annals of American postage stamps, a stamp honoring Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley (he was the chief force behind the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906), Ramon Magsaysay (a former president of the Philippines), Lajos Kossuth (a nineteenth-century Hungarian political leader), and Eph- raim McDowell (who performed the first successful abdominal operation in 1809). Theres even a stamp honoring Dante. These are all significant historical figures, I suppose, although if we were drawing up a list today of people in need of commemoration on our postage stamps I doubt that any of them would make the first hundred.
Still, a great poet, two important leaders of other countries, and two figures out of American medical historycan we hope to stack up a mere spinner of science fiction stories against them?
Ill try to demonstrate, in a moment, that Isaac wasnt all that mere. But let me continue to offer you, first, the names of some of the people whove made the grade with the U.S. Postal Service in recent times rather than in the austere old days when you had to be Washington or Jefferson to achieve postal glory.
For example, heres a bunch of football players: Bronco Nagurski, Ernie Nevers, Walter Camp, Red Grange. Great athletes all, sure. Still, just football players, not presidents or surgeons or creators of undying poetry. Heres a pack of movie actors: the horror guys, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney. Are the guy who played Frankenstein and the fellow who wore the Wolf Man mask such significant cultural figures? They scared us silly when we were kids, sure. But Isaac Asimov entertained, instructed, and delighted us, and ennobled us with his wisdom.
Heres a stamp for Marilyn Monroe, and for Audrey Hepburn. Heres one for Wild Bill Hickok. Helen Keller gets a stamp, and so does Will Rogersdoes anyone under fifty know who he was?and newspaper publisher Adolph Ochs. Dr. Seuss has a stampwell, all right and country-music star Roy Acuff, and film-music conductor Henry Mancini.
Heres one for Daffy Duck, for Gods sake, and one for Prince Valiant, and one for Dick Tracy. (Little Orphan Annie and Popeye, too, and, for us sci-fi types, Flash Gordon.) Here we have a passel of ancient baseball stars, and aviator Billy Mitchell, and movie bad-guy Edward G. Robinson. Irving Berlin. Houdini. Andy Warhol gets his fifteen minutes of postal fame. E.T., even, has a stamp. So do assorted spiders, teddy bears, reptiles, carnivorous plants, and bats.
You get the idea. The United States issues thirty or forty postage stamps a year, and in the aggregate they reflect the whole range of American cultural and political history from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Well, then, why not a stamp for Isaac Asimov, whose range ran from the sublime to the ridiculous all in one remarkable human being?
"Just a science fiction writer," someone might say.
Part of that is true. He was a science fiction writer, whose Three Laws of Robotics provided nifty fodder for fantastic story plots sixty years ago, but also established much of the conceptual basis for the real-life robots that are going to be everywhere in our lives before this present century gets a whole lot older. His Foundation novels told tall tales of far-future galactic empires, but they also brought our own worlds actual history to life in vivid metaphorical reconstruction. In such classic works as "The Ugly Little Boy" and "The Bicentennial Man" Isaac introduced a powerful note of compassion and pathos to such well-worn science fictional themes as robotics and time travel and gave them new emotional resonance.
A science fiction writer, yes. But not just a science fiction writer. In hundreds of carefully constructed books and perhaps a thousand shorter works he made science and history accessible to two generations of readers. Isaac was the Great Explainer, taking all knowledge as his province and expounding on it in that wonderfully lucid, irresistible, inimitable style of his. Among his multitudes of books we find such titles as Asimovs Guide to Shakespeare, Asimovs Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, Asimovs Guide to the Bible, Asimovs Guide to Science, Asimovs Annotated Paradise Lost, and on and on and on, what in almost any other writer would be a vast monument to chutzpah but which for Isaac Asimov is simply a record of the infinite range of his astonishing mind. In an era when public education in America was producing the sorriest of results Isaac Asimov functioned as a one-man private university, teaching everything that anyone needed to know to everyone who came within reach of his work.
He was an invaluable public personality, too. Im not talking about the Isaac often encountered at SF conventions, the irrepressible clown always quick with an improvised limerick, a song, a bawdy joke. I mean the Isaac of the television news programs, always the voice of reason in time of crisis, patiently explaining the latest horrendous event, setting it in context, elaborating on its implications for our society: a serious man, a public man, a responsible and invaluable citizen who just happened to be smarter than most other citizens and was willing to place that formidable intelligence at our service whenever it was needed.
Even if we discount all of that and simply look upon him as "just a science fiction writer," whats the objection to honoring him purely for that? His stories and novels gave pleasure to millions. We already have a Literary Arts series of stamps that has included such writers as Ayn Rand, Ogden Nash, and Zora Neale Hurston. Each of them was significant in one way or another, but can one say that Isaac Asimovs collected works are a lesser achievement than Ogden Nashs clever jingles or Ayn Rands grim fantasies of staunch economic determinism?
Or, if theres no place for him among the Literary Arts honorees, why not a whole series of stamps for science fiction writers? The Postal Service has managed to honor sports figures, movie stars, photographers, composers of movie music, choreographers, female journalists, and any number of other specialized groups, including, indeed, spiders, reptiles, teddy bears, carnivorous plants, and bats. Could it not manage a little string of stamps for Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, John W. Campbell, Clifford D. Simak, Theodore Sturgeon, and L. Sprague de Camp? Great Britain has managed to give Arthur C. Clarke a knighthood. Can we not at least put some of our great SF people on our stamps?
A nice fantasy, that. But perhaps its time has not yet come. Lets start simply with an Isaac stamp. Visit the Internet address I provided at the beginning of this piece for more information. Or just send a note to the group that actually decides whose faces go on our stamps:
C/O Stamp Development
475 LEnfant Plaza, SW
Washington, D.C. 20260-2437
Isaac on a stamp! (Designed, perhaps, by Kelly Freas.) What a delicious idea! Lets get working on it right away.