With Fault Tolerance (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), writer Valerie Valdes is concluding the cat-astrophic sci-fi space opera trilogy she launched in 2019 with Chilling Effect, and continued in 2020 with Prime Deceptions. In the following email interview, Valdes discusses what inspired and influenced this final installment.
For people who haven’t read the first two books, what is this trilogy about, and when and where are these stories set?
It’s called the Chilling Effect series, and it’s a found family space opera about the motley crew of a spaceship trying to make their way in the universe, as one does, and getting roped into bigger and badder problems as they go.
They’re all set a few hundred years in the future, in mostly made-up worlds all over the known universe. The first book involves Eva being forced to work for a crime syndicate called The Fridge to pay the ransom for her kidnapped sister, but she has to lie to her crew about what she’s doing, and it only gets worse from there.
Do these stories feature CATS…IN…SPACE…because you are a cat owner, or is there some other reason you didn’t have them be dogs or ferrets or, I don’t know, PIGS…?
Can anyone truly own a cat? One of life’s mysteries. I do live with two of them, and I grew up around cats, so the ones in my books are definitely based on personal experience. The idea of having cats on the ship came from that, but also from stuff like cat cafes and colleges using pets as emotional support animals, and of course lots of cargo ships did have cats once upon a time. Having them be difficult cargo initially made sense because have you met cats? Close the door to the bathroom while you’re inside and suddenly it’s the place they most want to be in the whole world. They may love you, but they have their own agendas.
And then for those who have read Chilling Effect and Prime Deceptions, and can thus ignore me writing SPOILER ALERT in all caps, what is Fault Tolerance about, and how does it connect to the previous books, both narratively and chronologically?
Fault Tolerance picks up a few weeks after the end of Prime Deceptions, with Eva and her crew trying to take a quick vacation before they have to start looking for work again. They’ve just come off a huge space battle as well as a first encounter — second for Eva — of the large sentient robot kind. The fallout from that comes in the form of what at first is just weird monoliths broadcasting ominous “surrender now” messages, and turns out it’s hostile robots getting ready to blow up the ocean. Or the universe. Both those things.
When in the process of writing Chilling Effect and Prime Deceptions did you come up with the story for Fault Tolerance, and what inspired its plot?
I had the general shapes of Fault Tolerance planned from when I first started writing Chilling Effect. I set up the “ancient aliens” stuff early on, and put a bunch of guns on Chekhov’s mantle, with Eva catching a glimpse of the enemy at the end of book one that doesn’t fully manifest as a problem until the end of book two. What changed a bit since my early thoughts was how the fight against the bad guys would go in Fault Tolerance. One of the things I always ask myself when I’m putting together a story is, what makes the main character uniquely qualified to do the plot stuff? And a lot of the story shapes didn’t feel right for the crew of La Sirena Negra. Piloting giant mechs totally did.
You said that Chilling Effect and Prime Deceptions were sci-fi space opera stories. Is Fault Tolerance one as well?
This is still space opera, though I’ve also called it “space pachanga” because of the Cuban elements. There’s a lot of action and planet-hopping and romance and pew pew pew.
Chilling Effect and Prime Deceptions have also been described as being humorous. Which suggests that Fault Tolerance is, too.
I think it’s probably the most serious of the three books, though the other two also dealt with a lot of rough themes underneath all the jokes. I didn’t go out of my way to lean one way or the other, though. And I do think it’s still pretty funny. Humor is a great coping mechanism when life gets a little too real, and I was writing this mid-pandemic and feeling really low. I spent a not insignificant amount of time deliberately adding stuff that made me laugh, because if it helped me, maybe it could help other people.
It sounds like the humor may be more situational than jokey…
It’s a bit of both. I tend to have snark from the narrator voice along with the characters’ dialogue and Eva’s inner thoughts. I also like putting my characters in awkward or wacky situations and finding equally awkward or wacky ways for them to get out of trouble. I think the balance works for my stories because I riff a lot on pop culture stuff and social issues, things floating around in the zeitgeist. Sometimes you can straight up say a thing that’s funny, sometimes it’s better to show it being funny in action.
So then who do you see as being the biggest influences on the humor in Fault Tolerance?
I love not just The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy but also the Dirk Gently books, so Douglas Adams is definitely an influence. Terry Pratchett is another big one. He has an amazing way with words, setting a joke up, and then knocking you down with it, then tickling you again just when you thought you were safe. I also owe a lot to the Rogues Of The Republic series by Patrick Weekes, and some of my more wry humor comes from Diana Wynne Jones.
Aside from Adams, Pratchett, Weekes, and Jones, are there any other writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on Fault Tolerance but not on anything else you’ve written, especially not Chilling Effect and Prime Deceptions?
Without getting too specific, Fault Tolerance does interface with military sci-fi I’ve read, as well as various stories involving robots. Eva and Pink, as well as Vakar to a certain extent, are characters who have backgrounds that involve, if not direct military experience, then at least a fair amount of combat in organized units. This story also culminates in battles that are as close to large-scale warfare as I’ve come since the end of Prime Deceptions, in which Eva was more a bystander than a participant. Here she had to engage in the kinds of tactics that aren’t her strong suit — or mine. I did a lot of homework.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? You mentioned that you “…riff a lot on pop culture stuff…”
For this book specifically, the biggest influences are Transformers, Voltron, and Mass Effect 3. There’s also a sprinkle of Smash Bros, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Thundercats, Overwatch, Portal 2, and more Easter eggs than I could hope to remember.
Along with fiction, you also write poetry. Which suggests that you also read poetry. How do you think reading and writing poetry may have influenced how you wrote Fault Tolerance?
When it comes to my fiction, poetry usually sneaks in through themes and interiority more than anything. Sometimes a turn of phrase from a poem will wiggle its way into an image or a snippet of dialogue. If anything, I’ve had to tone my poetic tendencies down for the Chilling Effect books because the voice isn’t very poetic. The p.o.v. is close third person, and Eva will sometimes get philosophical or remember a bit of a poem or story here and there, but mostly she’s straightforward and practical and sarcastic.
As we’ve been discussing, Fault Tolerance is the third and final book of this trilogy. There are undoubtedly people who’ve been waiting for it to come out so they can read all three books back-to-back. Do you think this is a good idea or should people put some space between them?
You can safely binge the books without fear. Unless you want to use them as a reward to motivate yourself to do something, I guess? Or save them for a rainy day? Up to you.
Earlier I asked if Fault Tolerance had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Fault Tolerance — and, by extension, this trilogy — could work as a movie, show, or game?
I could see it adapted to pretty much any format, honestly. As a movie, you’d want to trim down the subplots, cut down on the space between plot points and let the big action setpieces shine. As a TV show, you could probably do a chapter per episode and let it breathe, lean more on the character moments and relationships, or spin it into something more like a sitcom with wacky hijinks in different places. A video game would likely work best as something like the Guardians Of The Galaxy game, with banter and exploration interspersed with fancy flying and fight scenes. A table top role-playing game would also be fun, with players making characters in the Chilling Effect universe.
But I think if it were up to me, it would probably be a TV show. That’s the closest to how I wrote it.
And if someone wanted to make that show, who would you want them to cast as Eva, Vakar, Tito, and the other main characters?
I’d be happy with a lot of actors, honestly. Different directors have different visions, and some actors have better chemistry than others when you put them together. Natalie Morales [Stuber] would be cool as Eva, or Jenny Lorenzo [Victor & Valentino], or Stephanie Beatriz [Brooklyn Nine-Nine]. I’d also cast Melissa Fumero [also Brooklyn Nine-Nine] as Mari, because she’s great at being uptight. Tito I’ve always seen as [Moon Knight‘s] Oscar Isaac, but Wilmer Valderrama [NCIS] would be amazing, too. Vakar is a wild card, because physically he doesn’t look like anyone, so it’s more about how he sounds. I could see [Black Panther‘s] Winston Duke, [The Hobbit‘s] Luke Evans, [Doctor Strange‘s] Chiwetel Ejiofor…someone with a hot voice who deadpans well.
So, is there anything else that you think people need to know about Fault Tolerance and this trilogy?
If you’re looking up the Spanish phrases, keep in mind that you might want to add “Cuban” as a search term. Eva doesn’t speak the kind of formal Spanish you might have learned in school.
Finally, if someone enjoys Fault Tolerance, and the rest of this trilogy, what humorous sci-fi space opera series of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
With the caveat that different people have different tastes and senses of humor, a few I’d suggest are: The Finder Chronicles by Suzanne Palmer, The Salvagers by Alex White, The Chocoverse by Amber Royer, and the Murderbot series by Martha Wells.