Robin Sloan
main newsletter
April 2023

How to build
a spaceship

A pair of hands, viewed from above, making a mark on a sheet of white plastic, following the line of a long ruler.

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 — you’ll see why.

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 — those beautiful chamfered donuts of life.

An aerial view of a Barcelona neighborhood in which each block has a sort of continuous form -- a chamfered donut of life, truly!
The Eixample, our exemplar

We played with the shape a bit, then made a paper model, just to confirm that it looked inter­esting.

A rough paper model, like a square donut with a bite taken out of it.
Frank Gehry, eat your heart out

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 — instead, you just score the sheet lightly, then bend and snap along the line.

Robin cutting a sheet of white plastic to fit the spaceship structure that is slowly taking shape.
Measure twice, snap once

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.

Jesse peering closely at the rough form of the spaceship model.
Jesse the scientist

So far, so good — but this Bethel was just a box of white plastic.

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 — like the fabled Indus­trial Light and Magic — for adding visual interest to a plain, smooth model.

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.

A close-up of an array of tiny model kit components still connected to their plastic armature, just as they come in the kit.
The original greeble

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 — “this? here? yeah?”—and glue it down.

Greeble by greeble, your spaceship takes shape, its whole theory of design and operation emerging organ­i­cally from the bits available.

Jesse's hands affixing tiny model kit components to the U-shaped form of our spaceship model.
Affixing the ventral capacitance array

As intox­i­cated as I was by the expe­ri­ence of greebling — no, it was NOT the solvent fumes — I couldn’t deny that the ship still looked like a bunch of random garbage glued together.

The spaceship model, fully greebled but unpainted. Its heterogenous origin is clear, with different parts clearly made of white, gray, and black plastic.
Millennium Falcon it ain't

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 … 

Robin crouched above the spaceship model, just beginning to paint it with gray primer from a spray can.
Millennium Falcon it might be

 … and he was right!

The spaceship model painted uniform gray, looking suddenly a lot like a spaceship.
Millennium Falcon it IS!

Behold, the DSS John Bethel. What a beauty.

Having secured our talent, we arranged a photo shoot.

Jesse adjusting the spaceship model on its pedestal in front of the green screen.
Green screen courtesy Craigslist

We captured imagery for slow flybys through starfields. These spare, languid videos will accompany our album in its YouTube incarnation.

The spaceship model set up in front of a green screen, illuminated and glowing garishly.
GAH it looks great

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.

The album cover. Text reads THE COTTON MODULES and THE GREATEST REMAINING HITS. A spaceship hangs in the center of the frame, lonely against the cold stars.
Coming May 2, 2023

Listen, I’m sure lots of people — including some of you reading this newsletter — could whip up a perfectly convincing image in a 3D modeling program. Ray-traced, naturally, with virtual greebles sparkling in the hard light.

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 — in music, specifically — shouldn’t be about automa­tion and imitation. It should be (just like every other tool and technique) about making new oper­a­tions possible, and producing sounds you’ve never heard before.

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!

Two actors, Ian McKellen and David Suchet, working together, with an effusive director gesturing in the background.
Ian McKellen, John Barton, and David Suchet, all looking a bit Muppet-like

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 — because, in the Bay Area, the clock is always ticking. The rent is always rising. Here, there can be no 30-year promises; there can be no settling in.

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 — with this feeling — for the new novel than for anything I’ve ever produced before. Not plastic modeling, but mapmaking and terrain-shaping and, yes, even a bit of Tolkien-esque language invention. Before the book arrives, I’d like to produce some drawings, too.

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 — as a reader, I want to read books by people who make maps and build models! Why shouldn’t I attempt, at last, to be that kind of writer myself?

Okay — I’m headed out on a long trip to another country. There might be some evidence on Instagram in the weeks to come. There might also: not be!

From Oakland,


P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter on May 2.

April 2023