This week, when most of the senior officers wait in a busted shuttlecraft for the sweet embrace of death, they decide to pass the time by telling tales out of school. Kirk can’t accept failure, Chekov goes lone wolf, Sulu deals with a death in the family, and Scotty stays spectacularly on brand. How much does it cost to build a starship? What counts as a “young” death in the Trek universe? Would anyone really waste that much paper in the 23rd century? It’s the book that passes with flying colors.
The Kobayashi Maru
Author: Julia Ecklar
Published: December 1989
Timeline: Between The Motion Picture and Wrath of Khan
When the shuttlecraft Halley suffers a freak accident and leaves its passengers stranded with no communications, there’s not much for Kirk to contribute to the rescue effort, especially since he busted his knee in the wreck. The dire nature of the situation reminds him of a similarly insurmountable encounter: the Kobayashi Maru exercise, Starfleet Academy’s command simulation slash secret test of character. Normally, participants keep mum about their turn in the chair, but since he’s about to die and he’s around people he trusts, Kirk figures what the hey.
The Kobayashi Maru alternates between scenes aboard the Halley and the tales of the crew. It is a book of remarkable economy, and what little fat it does have exists to give just the right amount of juiciness to an already flavorful series of bites. And every bite of The Kobayashi Maru is a delicious one, indeed.
To wit, the four stories therein:
Kirk (“The No-Win Scenario”): At twenty-two pages, Kirk’s yarn is the shortest, probably because most people reading this book will already be aware of the more salient details—i.e., he doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario, he reprogrammed it to be beatable, etc. Ecklar frames Kirk’s disbelief as more of a conscientious objection by having him argue that cheating is acceptable if the rules aren’t fair to begin with, and his position represents simply a principled stand. Kirk, refusing to allow his brain to be broken by the simulation’s alleged unwinnability, stays up well past curfew and consults with professors he respects, hoping to get a leg up on his next run at the simulator.
In the book, Kirk wins the scenario by reprogramming it so that the Klingons recognize him as a legendary captain and fall all over themselves to help him escort the Kobayashi Maru out of the Neutral Zone. Contrast that with the same scene in the 2009 J.J. Abrams film, where he simply hacks the systems so that the Klingons’ shields drop and just picks them off once they become sitting ducks. One of these scenes effortlessly exudes style, and the other is desperately pretending it has it. I don’t think it will be too difficult for you to figure out which one I think does which.
Chekov (“How You Play the Game”): After the shortest segment comes the longest, the moral of which essentially boils down to “Always read the directions”. Chekov’s section actually isn’t concerned so much with the Kobayashi Maru itself—he gets dressed down for five long, hilarious pages for sacrificing the Yorktown to blow up all the Klingons—but rather with another test: the Aslan Station exercise, in which the class must stay alive with an assassin (i.e., one of their classmates) in their midst.
Though he and his friends agree to meet up and stick together, Chekov is held up for a good hour-and-a-half by the same CO who administered his Kobayashi Maru assessment. As a result of the delay, he gets waylaid rather quickly on the way to the rendezvous, and immediately goes into self-preservation mode, scheming and plotting and using every advantage that comes his way (which quite a few plum ones do) to secure his own safety.
Chekov’s tendency to go all kamikaze seppuku guerrilla in these exercises takes a toll on some of his friendships, but he’s far from the only one who misses the ultimate point. Still, he remains visibly embarrassed and distressed by the story, not just because of his actions but also because he admits to some rather strong feelings of Kirk worship. (McCoy’s razzing doesn’t make him feel any better.) Even though it’s only barely a Kobayashi Maru story, it’s nice to see the performance and mindset of someone not as debonair and perfect as Kirk, and it’s full of excitement and thrills, and perhaps best of all, it’s funny, in a refreshingly unforced way that Trek so often isn’t.
Sulu (“Crane Dance”): Even though Chekov made mistakes and got embarrassed and lost friends, his story is nevertheless still pretty up-tempo and humorous. Sulu’s is as well—for a while, at least, until it’s not. Like Chekov’s, Sulu’s Kobayashi Maru tale doesn’t actually log all that much time in the simulator itself, though his is at the end, which, together with Scotty’s chapter being almost exactly the same length as Kirk’s, gives the book a strangely beautiful symmetry.
Sulu spends his final day before command school with his beloved great-grandfather, Tetsuo “Poppy” Inomata. They go windsailing, as 103-year-old men do. They fold a zillion paper cranes. They talk about cranes, and, in a roundabout way, about achieving greatness. Then Sulu learns from a phone call that Poppy skipped his future-chemo to spend the day with him. Sulu isn’t happy with Poppy, but he’s glad he got to spend the time with him, so he doesn’t think much of it.
The next day, he scampers off to command school, and not long after orientation, he’s in class playing Galactic Politics, trying in vain to get people to pay any kind of attention to the backwater planet he’s been assigned. Honestly, other than introducing a key classmate who comes to Sulu’s defense later on, there isn’t much of a point to the Galactic Politics material. But I can’t say I care all that much, because man, is it fun. At this point, I would be fine just reading entire novels about famous officers’ Academy tenures, provided they’re all written as well as this one.
On a surprise visit, Poppy informs Sulu that, much like George Constanza, he wants to go out on the high note and call it a wrap on a life well-lived while he still has his dignity. Sulu gets cheesed off and leaves him standing in the middle of the quad. Poppy dies before Sulu can make amends, leaving him inconsolable. In his distress, he makes a half-hearted attempt to bow out of the Kobayashi Maru, but neither his CO nor the simulation offer sympathy to the bereaving. Not willing to trust unverifiable information, Sulu elects to ignore the distress call altogether, causing him to get reamed by his crew—all except one, who understands how hard it is to follow through on the courage of your convictions, in the process giving Sulu a better appreciation for his Poppy’s decision.
Scotty (“In Theory”): Rounding out the stories, we have Scotty, who [record scratch]—wait a minute: Scotty’s an engineer. What’s he doing in command school? Well, because that’s what his parents wanted. So what do you do when you’re following a career track you absolutely loathe just to appease Mom and Dad? You use a theoretical physics trick that doesn’t actually work in real life to prolong the test far beyond its average running time, thus causing your professors to declare you “unfit” for command and “kick you out” of command school. Duh!
There’s a lot crammed into this little story. Although less than half the length of the two stories preceding it, it’s got just as much humor and action as they do—maybe as much as both combined, if not more. As such, it’s a potent shot, made all the more hilarious and engaging because of how wonderfully in-character it all is.
Though we won’t see the name Julia Ecklar again, we will see her footprint all over future stories; she’s one-half (at times one-third) of the writing team known as L.A. Graf, a name allegedly derived from an acronym standing for “Let’s All Get Rich and Famous”. They certainly deserve to, with outstanding material like this. The Kobayashi Maru gives the reader a solid understanding of exactly why these characters are so beloved and legendary, something too many other Trek novels and their authors take for granted. It’s rare for me to wish the books were canon, but managing the feat of adding an even more stirring aura of mythicality around a cast of already cherished characters shouldn’t go to waste. Oh, sweet headcanon: would fandom be as rich without you?
MVP & LVP
- MVP, from both a “most valuable in getting everyone rescued” and “funniest story” standpoint, goes to Scotty. If anyone should get points for style, it’s him. Of the four Kobayashi Maru stories, his is above all the one that must be read to be believed.
- The crew of the Halley inhabit various states of usefulness, from the unscathed Scotty and Chekov to the completely laid-up Sulu, but I’m giving LVP to McCoy, based pretty much solely on the way he won’t leave Chekov alone after he finishes his story. Chekov is pretty hard on himself about it even decades later, but he doesn’t need to take guff from anyone about it, let alone from someone who can’t understand the psychological stress the exam puts on a cadet, having never taken it himself.
Nuggets & Other Stray Bits
- p. 59: “‘You willfully destroyed a Federation starship worth several billion credits'” — I’ve never really thought about a starship in terms of every individual line item, but when you lay it all out like that, it must really add up, huh? Building even one starship has to generate an expense list that could wrap around Earth a couple dozen times. And to make a whole fleet of these things?
- Sulu has a carnivorous plant named Filbert that seems pretty cool, and low-maintenance to boot.
- p. 236: “He never saw Walgren again after that, but Scott kept track of the older engineer until Walgren’s death at age seventy.” — Seventy seems like such a young age to die in Star Trek, and not just compared to Poppy a couple chapters back. By the time you make it to Next Generation, McCoy’s an admiral in his 130s. By comparison, 70 must seem like a life tragically cut short, so much potential wasted. Like, barring an unfortunate accident or serving on the front lines, is there any reason anyone in such an idealized future shouldn’t live to triple digits?
I give The Kobayashi Maru 5 out of 5 no-win scenarios. We began 2018 with a book that remains to date one of the lowest-scoring yet reviewed; 2019 starts off on much more the right foot. Imagining how other officers performed in the series’ most iconic test is such a simple premise with such a high reward potential, it’s a wonder no one thought to do it earlier. That’s not to downplay Ecklar’s achievement, because Lord knows we’ve slogged through enough duds to know very well that any number of authors could just as easily have botched it or made it boring. But there’s never a dull moment in this book. I’ve read this one several times and it’s never lost even a fraction of its original thrill. If you have any inkling whatsoever of what the Kobayashi Maru is, you need to read this book. It will amuse you, excite you, touch you, and leave you speechless.
NEXT TIME: Riker and the Enterprise crew are stuck between A Rock and a Hard Place