Fresh off his first sci-fi trilogy, Sleeping Giants, Sylvain Neuvel released a chilling new novella, The Test, in February that deals with the future of immigration and citizenry. Set in a near future United Kingdom, a man named Idir must take a test to gain British citizenship for himself, his wife, and his children. That’s all I can really tell about the plot without spoilers, so beware, they’re rampant south of this paragraph. Idir’s citizenship test forces him to make fatal choices on behalf, not only of his family, but also his desired homeland.
While the test starts off as you might expect – with lots of history and legal questions – Idir quickly finds himself at the mercy of masked gunmen who invade the testing compound. After taking hostages, the leader of the terrorist turns to Idir, who must choose which hostages get killed as the terrorists make their demands. The story then moves behind a computer console, which reveals that technicians are running a test in Idir’s mind as he sits unconscious. The real citizenship test consists of hypothetical scenarios conducted in a sort of virtual reality that only Idir sees. While Idir has to make choices about which of his fellow Britons live and die, Deep, a young test admin out to prove himself, presents Idir with an impossible choice: whether the terrorists need to kill his wife or his young son. The choices that Idir has to make ask questions who gets to enter wealthy societies. The dystopian UK administering the test wants new citizens who respect patriotic sacrifice, care about families, and above all will throw themselves in front of a bullet for their new country. However, the pressures of the test and Deep’s ambition, push Idir to the very edge of sanity.
Idir’s journey travels to the edge of extremism, but hovers there, allowing lots of room for ambiguity in the story. This kind of negative space in the story creates a striking image and quick read, but most reader who pick up a book aren’t in a hurry. Novellas live in the gray area between novel and short story, but The Test has the characters and interesting plot to carry it through a full-length project. Once the test ends, a deeply disturbed Idir must be left to live out his life, but the fallout for Deep and the other test admins doesn’t really get detailed treatment. Additionally, the exploration of the virtual reality on Idir’s psyche feels too restrained. Even the most political dystopias make room for eye-catching technology.
Sylvain Neuvel’s The Test provides a brief and thrilling glimpse into the future of the western world and the people who will soon inhabit it. While the plot takes several turns and presents the reader with difficult conundrums, sometimes the story simply feels untold. A quick read for anybody with a short plane ride with this weekend, and one that will carry your attention the entire way.
Check out Sylvain Neuvel’s latest work and upcoming news at neuvel.net
Three out of four stars
Page count: 112
Favorite quote: “Samaritan, pick someone before they both start saying they save kittens and take care of orphans.”