Book Talk: 'The Test' by Sylvain Neuvel - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'The Test' by Sylvain Neuvel

Alexander Wallace takes the test.
As long as there have been complex societies, there have been tests. There are rites of passage, trainings for any number of vocations, and a myriad of other ways to show that somebody really is something. Perhaps the more pernicious of these are citizenship tests: whether an immigrant has earned the right, however defined, to become a resident of a wholly new country, a new homeland as it were. It is that sort of perniciousness that Sylvain Neuvel so harrowingly demonstrates in his novella The Test, published in 2019 by

Your protagonist, Idir, comes from Iran with his wife and children, trying to make a new life in Britain. He is brought to a site where he is given the citizenship test, asked what are inane questions about British history that even I, an American, can answer with reasonable accuracy (that, or the questions are simply designed poorly).

The plot thickens, however, when you realize that this test is more than just a series of multiple choice questions. The narrative flip-flops between Idir in the testing room and Deep, a government bureaucrat who oversees the running of the test. Deep is perhaps a more interesting character than Idir; he is perhaps what the public thinks of when they hear ‘bureaucrat:’ a sniveling, ambitious, callous person who cares first and foremost about their career, and the glory that will be heaped upon them when the great accomplishment has been made.

The Test is a novella about gatekeeping, about means-testing. The test that Deep enforces (and has modified to his particular requirements) is designed to show moral character for the ideal British citizen. This is somewhat rich, coming from that government, and how immoral it can be (which is not to say my own government, or indeed any number of Iranian governments, are guiltless). It is about the iron fist of denial wrapped in the velvet glove of maintaining the public good.

It is also a novella about arbitrariness. It was luck that made Britain more stable and more desirable than Iran. You really begin to wonder, after a certain point, what moral right Deep has to do any of what he does; the simple answer is that he has none. He is a predator, exploiting Idir’s desperation for a better life for a chance to indulge in narcissism. It is a frustratingly accurate portrayal of so many bureaucracies, calling to mind works like Michael Frayn’s The Tin Men or Jennifer Hofman’s The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures.

The Test is an infuriating book. It is an infuriating book because it is so excruciatingly true-to-life. We have all lived under stultifying bureaucracy and the cruelty of social superiors. We have seen them deny things that all human beings should have in the name of some incomprehensible goal that is all too often cover for selfishness. That is the plot of The Test, and it is the plot of many of our lives.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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