radondoran: Perry the Platypus in a musketeer uniform, wielding a saber (Default)
radondoran ([personal profile] radondoran) wrote2013-02-01 11:55 pm

"What do Mike Donovan and Gregory Powell look like?"

So the other day I was doing a Google search for ["isaac asimov" "red hair"], I don't remember exactly why, probably looking for examples of redheads in his works to see to what extent he plays on stereotypical tropes about redheads (I think the answer is a lot, and I'll probably talk about that in a post sometime…)… But anyway, I found this Random House study guide for schoolchildren reading I, Robot, and one of the questions caught my eye:
3) What do Mike Donovan and Gregory Powell look like? Without letting them look at their books, have your students describe the two in as much detail as possible. What color are their eyes? How tall is each one? What race are they? Then ask your students to prove their descriptions from citations in the book. Asimov gives only one physical detail about the two (in "Catch That Rabbit!"): Donovan has red hair. (emphasis added)
And I was like, um, hello, probably-now-Dr. Darryl Stephens of UC Berkeley, that's not true at all!

So I set out to find out exactly what we do know about Powell and Donovan's appearance. Now, it is true that we don't get a lot of physical description of the two field-testers--we certainly don't get vital stats like in Lucky Starr or height comparisons to the centimeter like in The Robots of Dawn.

But we do get a few details, and we can use them to hypothesize a few more. (And for some questions, we have to make wild guesses--but that's fun too.)


Let's take Mike Donovan first. We get a lot more physical description of Donovan than of Powell--perhaps because he is more visually remarkable, and perhaps because the stories are generally (though not entirely) from Powell's POV. From the top down:

We know, as Stephens points out, that Donovan has red hair. This datum is by no means limited to "Rabbit", though--it's mentioned at least ten times in the four* main stories.

We also know a little bit about the quality of Donovan's hair. We know that it is an "unruly mass", a "mop", "wild"; that it "[springs] to attention" immediately after being flattened. So it's probably curly, right? And it's long enough that it can stand up, while not being so long that it doesn't stand up.

(In fact, we can probably safely assume that neither Powell nor Donovan has particularly long hair. In "Escape!", Donovan uses "longhairs" as a disparaging term for intellectuals, and the fact that the term is still current as of "Escape!" probably indicates that long hair is still considered unusual for men in the Robot!2020s, especially men who aren't artists or intellectuals.)

In "Reason", the narrator describes a furious Donovan with "complexion matching his hair". This may be only exaggeration, but I take this line as an indication that Donovan's hair is less of an orangey color and more of a deep red--something that a complexion could plausibly match.

We also know that Donovan has "rusty eyebrows" to match his hair, and that he has blue eyes (which have a slight tendency to be described as "large" or "bulging" in shocking moments).

Donovan also has a "florid face" which flushes or pales easily.

Donovan's fingers are "thick" and "hairy". These are small details, but I think they could suggest something about Donovan's general body type. With thick fingers, he's probably more stocky than willowy; and he probably has a little more than his quota of body hair.


Now, on to Greg Powell. The only specific piece of information we get about Powell's appearance is that he has a brown mustache. That's it. (Like Donovan's hair, Powell's mustache is his identifying feature--it's mentioned thirteen times in the four stories.)

But we're not totally at a loss. For instance, we can tell something about what kind of mustache Powell has. He puts his fingers "in" it, he "[pulls] at" it, he brushes it the wrong way, and so forth. So it's obviously a mustache of substance--it's definitely not a pencil-thin, for instance. (I usually think of it as one of those push-broom mustaches.)

Also, Powell's mustache is brown, so it's reasonable to assume that his hair is brown too. (If it were otherwise, wouldn't the narrator say so?)

In "Reason", Powell takes specific notice of Franz Muller's "close-cropped hair", so his own hair probably isn't close-cropped. For reasons discussed above, it probably isn't very long either.

We don't get an eye color for Powell, but brown is a statistically likely guess, and one that matches his characterization. (See, for instance, Lije Baley for gruff brown eyes and Daneel Olivaw for cool, impersonal brown eyes; or see Lucky Starr for another calm, brown-haired and brown-eyed hero who hangs around with an excitable redhead.)


Stephens's discussion question asks what race Powell and Donovan are. Mike Donovan is obviously supposed to be Irish-American: there's his name, his hair and coloring, his temper; and then there's his exclamation of "Holy Joe!" and his quietly terrifying vision of Hell in "Escape!"

Powell is almost certainly white as well--the fact that he turns red in "Reason" indicates that he has light skin. Judging by his name, he may be of Welsh or English descent.


Stephens also asks about height. This we really don't have any data on, even indirectly, except for the obvious inference that neither Powell nor Donovan is short or tall enough for it to be an inconvenience.

Probably neither of them is very tall, since they work in confined quarters in outer space (although this assumption does require the application of real-life space-travel facts to stories that were written before human spaceflight, which is pretty anachronistic).

Personally, I figure Powell is taller. Why? Because he acts taller, of course! ;) The detective of a pair is almost always the taller one. And because one can generalize Donovan's "thick fingers" to make him shorter and stockier--it would be poetic if Powell were taller and thinner for a foil.


What do Michael Donovan and Gregory Powell look like? This is about all I can gather or guess for them. It's not a lot, but it's more than just the "one physical detail" that Stephens's study guide gives the stories credit for.

So, how would you answer Stephens's question? What do you think Powell and Donovan look like? Have you ever tried to draw or write them, and how did you approach the question of their appearance? Are there other characters, in any fandom, that don't get a lot of physical description, for whom you have to infer or make up details?


*"Runaround", "Reason", "Catch That Rabbit", and "Escape!". "First Law" is a spoof--and anyway, it contains no physical description of Donovan and no explicit mention of Powell at all.

(For completeness' sake, here is a table with all the lines from the stories containing physical descriptions of Powell or Donovan that I used in this post.)

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