Title: The Kobayashi Maru
Author: Julia Ecklar
Series: The Original Series
Found: The Dickson Street Book Store in Fayetteville, AR for $2
It’s no secret that Captain James Kirk cheated on the Kobayashi Maru test. His firm belief in conquering no-win scenarios is alive and well when he finds himself stranded on a shuttle trapped in a debris field after a gravitic mine knocks out the engines. But he isn’t alone. Scotty, Chekov, Bones, and Sulu are onboard with him. They’d planned to help transport scientists away from a research facility, but the gravitic mine left them with no way to escape and out of sensor range of the Enterprise.
So the best way to pass the time is to tell each other how they tackled the Kobayashi Maru, and by doing so offer insight to their character and career.
Author Julia Ecklar paints the Kobayashi Maru as a daunting, shadowy trial reserved only for Starfleet Command Academy students. The computer cheats by countering every tactical move the hopeful captain makes by drastically overestimating the power of Klingon vessels, out maneuvering them, or simply spawning enemies until the cadets are destroyed.
In this take, Bones has no idea what the Kobayashi Maru is, and none of the crew stranded on the shuttle realized the others had taken the test. No, the Kobayashi Maru is a painful secret but one that ultimately set each man on the path they now follow.
What’s the Deal
As Kirk, Bones, Scotty, Chekov, and Sulu slowly accept that they might be trapped in a gravitic-mine-induced no-win scenario, each think back on the events surrounding the time they took the Kobayashi Maru at the command academy. Well, except Bones, who had never heard of the Kobayashi Maru and is keenly interested in understanding what the test involves.
Now, if Ecklar had gone into this by just retelling virtually the same mission each time, this book would be incredibly dull. To avoid this, each character not only talks about what happened during their attempts at the test, but also talk about their time in the command academy around it.
Kirk, predictably, spent hours upon hours trying to convert a universe full of tactical knowledge to memory before altering his test, Chekov (so obsessed with trying to live up to Kirk’s legacy) learns a harsh lesson about being clever over doing the right thing, and Scotty reveals why he’s a damned fine engineer who also ends up controlling the Enterprise from time-to-time. Beyond their creative attempts to “beat” the Kobayashi Maru, each man explores their motivations and personal revelations and not just how the simulation tried to cheat them.
This is an old-fashioned flashback episode. Ecklar captures the tone of each character so vividly that you can envision them being trapped on a roughed up particle board set trading stories about their younger selves. It’s a pity that the original series didn’t get a chance to really investigate the lives and histories of its characters, but the extended fiction is up to that task.
What makes The Kobayashi Maru feel like an episode is that each flashback builds on the next, and gives the crew the hope to survive by reminding them of the lessons they learned in school. While each crew member has a different feeling toward the simulation, that experience unites and inspires them to survive. Which involves a very strange sequence where Chekov turns a survival exercise into The Hunger Games.
All flashback-reliant stories end up feeling very formulaic after a while. Even though I appreciate how Ecklar approached four different interpretations of the Kobayashi Maru, the overall purpose is clear from the beginning. And, add to that the knowledge that this stranded shuttle craft doesn’t actually pose the greatest danger to Kirk and crew, the emotional impact is lost.
On a more uncomfortable note, this book was published in 1989 yet Ecklar repeatedly refers to Asians as “Orientals.” It’s clearly not meant offensively, but it is shocking to see the term used. I don’t think it is a book-ruining offense, but more a curious choice when Asian was rapidly becoming the acceptable term when describing people from, well, Asia, even in 1989.
Should You Read It?
Absolutely. The Trek books I enjoy most (and that are arguably the best) are those that conjure up images you can build with your memories of the series they represent. In The Kobayashi Maru, it is easy to imagine a busted up shuttle, and to think about the sparking simulation bridge in The Wrath of Khan. You can clearly picture dialog being spoken in the actors’ voices, and identify their expressions without the need for meticulous description. Books that can truly bring the show alive in print are vastly preferable to long diatribes about whether Data has a soul (yes, I’m still trying to get over Metamorphosis).
Also, Ecklar’s view of Starfleet as a military academy may not be unique, but she brings a certain darkness to it that forces each main character to burn brighter to reach their potential. I’ve never thought of Starfleet as particularly military-minded, despite the naval ranks and ship identifications. It struck me as simply naval remains for a now research focused institution with a light military bent.
But the real reason you should read the Kobayashi Maru is Ecklar’s stellar depiction of Montgomery Scott. She makes him both sage-like and impatient without crossing the line of “stereotypically hot-blooded Scottsman” and making Scotty seem incapable of doing other stuff besides engineering. He’s a capable man, but his passions run deep.
5 Smoking Simulation Bridges Out of 5
Coming Up Next
The next book in the Star Trek Novel Project is Peter David’s Imzadi, which was the last of David’s books personally approved by Gene Roddenberry before he passed away. Roddenberry was keen to read it, and I go into the book knowing he never got to. A bit sad, but Imzadi is a serious book compared to the playful sense of hope in The Kobayashi Maru.