How to build
This edition offers a behind-the-scenes preview of an upcoming release. It’s also a record of a kind of project that I can now enthusiastically recommend.
There’s no room for public domain art in this one —
This is an archived edition of Robin’s newsletter. You can sign up to receive future editions using the form at the bottom of the page.
As many of you know, I’m in a band with Jesse Solomon Clark, called The Cotton Modules. About eighteen months ago, we released our first album, the product of a hybrid human/AI collaboration.
That first outing received such a warm reception (e.g., in this interview, and from many of you) that we felt encouraged and energized to dig deeper into the techniques we had discovered.
Our forthcoming release, titled The Greatest Remaining Hits, is a sci-fi concept album that represents a huge leap forward in quality and appeal. We’ve dialed in a combination of human craft and AI weirdness that we believe is totally unique; as far as we know, there’s nobody else in the world using these tools in this way.
But this newsletter isn’t about the album, which won’t arrive until May.
It’s about the spaceship!
Again, this is a sci-fi concept album. To introduce it, I’ve written a new short story, which we’ll publish alongside the songs. The important thing to know, for now, is that it’s about the voyage of the Deep Space Sloop John Bethel.
At some point, Jesse and I decided we ought to actually build this spaceship. It would be useful, we reasoned, to have a “hero” prop for various marketing materials … and a physical object might cut against the digital grain of the album in a cool way, right? Regardless, building a real model sounded like more fun than pushing wireframes around a screen.
We basically followed this video from Adam Savage step-by-step.
He is a civic treasure.
Our first task was to imagine a silhouette that wasn’t already claimed by another sci-fi franchise. The Bethel is carrying thousands of passengers to a distant planet; we imagined a flying city block, like the ones in Barcelona —
We played with the shape a bit, then made a paper model, just to confirm that it looked interesting.
To scale it up, we obtained sheets of plain white polysterene, beloved by model train enthusiasts and architects alike. As we learned from Adam Savage, polystyrene is a joy to work with. You don’t have to cut all the way through —
It is likewise very easy to assemble, using a clear solvent that you brush across your joint; the plastic melts and bonds almost instantly.
Sooner than we expected, our basic form was complete.
So far, so good —
It was the next step that had, for me, motivated the whole project.
Any sci-fi nerd of a certain depth and/or vintage knows about GREEBLING, the technique ubiquitous in movie model shops —
The technique is: buy a bunch of old model kits and bash them together!
Think of the iconic spaceships of the original Star Wars trilogy (none of which I will depict here, for I do not want you to compare them to ours): all thickly encrusted with tiny structural details, appropriated from battleships, artillery cannons, fighter planes, submarines, and more.
These details are called greebles, and the process of placing them is therefore: greebling.
I have wanted to greeble something for a very, very long time. Maybe for my entire conscious life. I regret that it took me this many years to get here, because it was exactly as much fun as I imagined.
(If you feel the same impulse, you should know that it’s easier and more tractable than I’d ever imagined. Adam Savage awaits, ready to instruct you.)
The cosmic thing about greebling is, there’s no master plan. Jesse and I took turns. Pick an interesting plastic bit from the pile, hold it up to a place on the model —
Greeble by greeble, your spaceship takes shape, its whole theory of design and operation emerging organically from the bits available.
As intoxicated as I was by the experience of greebling —
BUT! Adam Savage had assured us that a single coat of gray primer would pull everything together: a sudden, snapping suspension of disbelief.
So we painted …
… and he was right!
Behold, the DSS John Bethel. What a beauty.
Having secured our talent, we arranged a photo shoot.
We captured imagery for slow flybys through starfields. These spare, languid videos will accompany our album in its YouTube incarnation.
We have no illusions of sci-fi grandeur. This is the simplest imaginable application of a process that was invented and perfected in the 1970s (not far from where I’m typing this), now re-enacted crudely, but happily, by The Cotton Modules.
You’ll have to wait for the album’s release to see the Bethel in motion, but right now, I can show you something else.
A few weeks after we’d finished with the model and the green screen, we were discussing ideas for album art. I mentioned something about the Voyager probe’s Golden Record, and how a riff on that design might be evocative. Jesse replied, “Are you kidding? We built a spaceship! LET’S USE THE SPACESHIP!”
We used the spaceship.
Listen, I’m sure lots of people —
But, scroll back! Look again at the box of white plastic we started with. Isn’t it cool to know THAT thing is THIS thing? Doesn’t the gap between the real and the imaginary produce a tremendous crackle of energy?
This connects to the way Jesse and I use AI, too. For us, the technology doesn’t make anything faster, easier, or simpler. Far from it: AI makes our production slower, more difficult, more complex.
We put up with it because the results are consistently surprising and evocative.
That’s one of the arguments embedded in this album: AI in art —
I’m very glad Jesse and I built the DSS John Bethel, and I can’t wait to tell you its whole story.
To tide you over until the new Cotton Modules album arrives, here’s a fresh one from Jesse: Synonyms for Peace, Vol. 1.
Sesame Street Shakespeare
Here is a random YouTube discovery that totally magnetized me.
Playing Shakespeare was a miniseries first broadcast in, I think, 1982. The host is John Barton, a longtime director and teacher at the Royal Shakespeare Company; the setting is a stage, after hours, with Barton surrounded by a coterie of actors who are, at the time of this recording, not yet global superstars: Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley, Judi Dench … Patrick Stewart!
But they are not even the main appeal. Rather, it’s the show’s format and tone. For me, it evokes Sesame Street; it has the same collegial earnestness. John Barton poses questions and challenges to the actors, who fire back. It’s not entirely natural, but/and the “staginess” is excusable, because, come on!
The first episode is the one that hooked me. It’s about how Shakespeare’s elevated language interacts with the modern tradition of naturalistic acting. The discussion is brainy, humane, expansive, inviting … I could just keep piling on the positive adjectives. It’s wonderful.
They should make shows like this in the 2020s, and not just about acting.
I want you to come back in 30 years
As a certified Craig Mod superfan, I loved reading about the adventure that bloomed around his recommendation of Morioka, Japan as one of the 52 Places to Go in 2023.
I don’t have a New York Times subscription, so I haven’t read the recommendation itself, but/and, Craig’s reflection on the experience of visiting Morioka again after its publication is a treasure. There are moments that feel like they belong in a short story, in the best possible way.
One of the people in Morioka who Craig interviews (and photographs beautifully) is a young cafe owner. He writes:
[The cafe] was started in 1976 by Masaaki Takahashi and is now run by his daughter, Mana, 39. She took it over in 2019 after her father died of cancer. “I want you to come back in 30 years,” she said. “You’ll see me as an old woman hand-roasting beans in the corner.”
This pinned me to the wall; it continues to resonate, weeks later. I think it’s about the most beautiful statement you can imagine, about a person and a place together.
You know I love the Bay Area deeply. At the same time, I won’t pretend anyone in the Bay Area could make this statement. No —
Some people do manage to make and keep 30-year promises here, and they are heroic. It shouldn’t require heroism. It should be matter-of-fact. It should be available to anyone. Everyone!
Of course, other places in the U.S. present a converse challenge: will anybody be here in 30 years?
One of Craig’s arguments about Morioka is that it’s simply healthy. That feels pretty radical in the unbalanced urbanity of the 21st century, and it is therefore worth noticing, and, for sure, celebrating.
Jack Cheng designs his dream house. I suppose I’m sensitized to this because Jesse and I just built a physical model of our own … but how could you NOT want to do a few of the exercises Jack describes here? What an inviting approach to architecture. Terrific.
There’s a connection between this newsletter and the previous edition, its investigation into Tolkien’s revisions of The Lord of the Rings. They are both connected, in turn, to my new novel, currently being reviewed by my editor at MCD.
The connection is worldbuilding, because I’ve done more work of this kind —
If you’d asked me ten years ago, I would have said this kind of work was mostly procrastination. For the Robin of a decade ago, that was true. Now, with deeper confidence and expanded ambition, I can make time and space for these explorations without getting derailed.
Maybe it’s just an indulgence, but I don’t think so. I mean —
P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter on May 2.