Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tales From The Discount Bin: The Kobayashi Maru

[For some reason Blogger won't allow me to add an image, so I'll try to remember and add one later. Also it won't let me spellcheck, so hopefully I don't make too many glaring mistakes.]

You know, I'm a geek. That's no secret. At best, I'm a dork. I don't think I quite make nerd because I'm not smart enough. Or at least not smart enough in any specialized area. In any field that I feel myself to be fairly well versed, I can think of several personal friends of mine who are more so. That suits me, actually. 'Jack of all trades, master of none' may unfortunately describe my life sometimes, but I've always preferred to be a bit eclectic in my interests. There are too many wonderful things in the world to limit yourself to just one field. And still, there are many more things out there that I have no real experience in. With this blog you've seen me attempting to stretch the boundaries of my cultural knowledge, and today I make another little nudge at that amorphous wall. Today I take another step into the depths of geekiness, boldly going, you might say, into a new, if not final, frontier. Yes, today I review a Star Trek novel.

Now, there are probably a few people who recognized todays subject from the title line alone, and to them I say 'Welcome! Greetings, member of my tribe!' The Kobayashi Maru, as any geek worth his salt knows, is the name of a Starfleet Training exercise first mentioned in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The test has since been mentioned in every subsequent Trek television series, as the Star Trek equivalent of 'damned if you do, damned if you don't.' Basically, the test involves the cadet acting as ship's captain, and receiving a distress call from a civilian ship inside the Klingon nuetral zone(a no-fly zone for both the Federation & the Klingon Empire, for those not in the know). If you ignore the distress call, the civilians will almost certainly die, but if you attempt a rescue, you will be risking intergalactic war. Indeed, immediately upon entering the Neutral Zone in the simulation, three Klingon Warbirds appear and open fire. The cadet can choose to fight back, but the computer has stacked the odds, and for every warbird you destroy, 3 more appear, until the ship is destroyed. Basically it's a no-win scenario, designed to test a command officer's ability to make tough situations that very realistically could kill his entire crew.

In The Kobayashi Maru, the first Trek novel by Julia Ecklar(she would go on to write 10 more), we get to read how most of Kirk's commanding officers handled the test. Returning from an away mission, Kirk, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty & McCoy are stranded when their shuttle hits a gravitic mine(it doesn't matter what it is) and their shuttle loses all power. With no way of contacting the Enterprise, and no way for the Enterprise to find them(too much debris and interference), the group passes the time by recounting how their Starfleet days, specifically in relation to the Kobayashi Maru simulation.

We all know how Kirk dealt with the test-it was revealed in The Wrath of Khan that he reprogrammed the simulation so that the Klingons feared him, and refused to attack. The book breezes by this, but spends even less time on how Chekov passed his test, putting considerably more focus on what came afterwards. It turns out Chekov was a bit of a career-minded dickhead in his academy years. After self-destructing his ship during the Kobayashi Maru simulation, Chekov and his class are sent off to an empty space station(closed for repairs, as it were) for a 24 hour test. The premise is simple; there is an assassin on the station, all you have to do is stay alive for one day. Immediately the cadets begin to form alliances and wage war on their fellow students. Imagine a futuristic version of the movie Battle Royale. Chekov, after betraying/killing his friends, then takes out the few remaining cadets by once again 'committing suicide', taking everyone else out when he sets off a bomb he'd been carrying. In the end it's revealed that there was no assassin, and they were being tested on their ability to find peaceful solutions to problems. The Kobayashi Maru, this test, and then that one episode of The Next Generation where Wesley was tested when Starfleet pretended a bunch of his classmates had died in an explosion. Starfleet are a bunch of douchebags.

Sulu is next, and his story begins slightly before he enters Command School, setting up his loving relationship with his great-grandfather, who is dying(slowly) from some unnamed illness. When Sulu finds out his great-grandfather has discontinued treatment, he stops talking to him. A few months later, after a training exercise, he is informed that his great-grandfather has died. The day after this is when he takes the Kobayashi Maru. Still reeling from the news, Sulu takes a completely non-violent approach to the test. When he receives the distress call from within the Nuetral Zone, he sends word back that he will contact Starfleet and they can contact a Klingon ambassador who will, hopefully, facilitate a rescue. This is, by far, the most logical response. After all, what was the freighter doing in the nuetral zone? Without being able to scan the area, how can he be sure it isn't a trap? Also, I found Sulu the most likable character in the book, and his relationship with his Great Grandfather felt authentic. Kirk was, even back in Starfleet, prone to an irritating sense of entitlement, Chekov was, simply, an anti-social jerk, and Scotty, as a character, was almost an afterthought.

Scotty's story walked that line between character drama and science jibber-jabber that has been the bane of the Star Trek universe almost from the get-go. The original series always had better ideas than execution, but as soon as the movies and Next Generation rolled around, the superior execution brought with it an increased focus on fake science. Really, when I watch Star Trek, I don't really care about dilithium crystals or warp cores or how the transporter works. All I need, when watching a science fiction show, is to know that the technology exists. After getting that out of the way, it's time to focus on some character development.

So yes, the big surprise here is that Scotty went to command school before changing his vocation to engineering. He never wanted to be there, though; his mind was always built more for schematics and tinkering than for command. His family, however, viewed engineering as a disappointing career choice, and pressured him into going for a command post. One of Scotty's teachers notices this, and gives him a way to study engineering without disappointing his family; The Kobayashi Maru. Scotty's solution to the test isn't so much a solution as it is a series of increasingly complex ways to destroy Klingon ships. And here's where the science jibber-jabber comes in, because many of the ways in which he destroys Klingon ships involve using the transporter to materialize things like dark matter into a Klingon ship, or causing some weird harmonic frequency between the Klingon's shields that causes them all to explode. I started to phase out a bit, but it also had that unorthodox problem solving aspect that I find oddly satisfying.

Scotty's instructor speaks up and has Scotty kicked out of command school for failing the Kobayashi Maru(apparently the only time this has ever happened). There's some made up reason involving Scotty using a technique that works in theory, but he knew to be impossible in reality, and thus he was cheating. But really, the bigger issue is that his instructor, well-meaning as he might be, thought that the best way to convince Scotty's family that he should be an engineer was to kick him out of command school. Surely that won't disappoint them, right?

In the end, of course, the tale-telling has not only kept everyone's spirits up, but given them an idea of how to signal a rescue. The Kobayashi Maru was a quick read, and all in all I really enjoyed it. I'm not sure if I'm ready to jump into the deep end and commit to any more Trek novels, but it was still a pretty good time.

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