"The Test"

Sylvain Neuvel’s novella, “The Test,” is very good near-future science fiction. It’s hard to talk about it without revealing the twist about 30 pages into it. That twist is essential to the book, but it’s a joy to discover the twist yourself.

The initial premise sounds like a straight-forward thriller. Idir is taking the British Citizenship Test. He comes from a future Iran ruled by “guns and impunity” where people disappear from their homes at night. If he passes the British Citizenship Test, he and his family can leave their old lives behind permanently.

The test is 25 questions, beginning with a fairly innocuous one: “Who is the patron saint of Wales and on which date is his feast day?” After working his way through a few questions, Idir hears gunshots. A group of men with guns have infiltrated the building and are taking hostages.

When Idir applies a tourniquet to an injured person, he draws attention to himself. The gunmen’s leader takes Idir to task for stepping out of line and forces Idir to take a new test. Until their demands are met, they will kill a hostage every 15 minutes. Idir will get to choose between two people. Whomever Idir chooses, dies. The other person lives. And soon he may be choosing between his wife or children, who are among the hostages.

There is more going on here, as the story’s twist reveals a British nation in which fear controls the people. Idir is trapped within a nefarious and relentless test that he can’t stop. As Idir confronts his choices, Neuvel asks us many questions. What do you need to know to become a citizen of a nation and what qualities make a good citizen? What are the limits a government will take to keep itself safe when its people have succumbed to fear of the other?

I loved Neuvel’s “The Themis Files” trilogy and the way he combines believable people, science fiction, and philosophy into ompulsively readable books. He works his same magic here. This is a disturbing and timely inquiry into citizenship, fear and state control.