by Sylvain Neuvel
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Do you have what it takes to pass The Test?
Sylvain Neuvel's The Test is another novella from Tor.com, released today. It's only about 100 pages, a quick read, although there are numerous elements that will have me thinking about it for quite some time. What I thought the story was going be about changed several times throughout. There are at least four different tests going on, maybe five or more, and my confidence in passing any of them is negligible.
Idir Jalil is an Iranian immigrant to the UK, a dentist. He applies for citizenship and goes to the government office to take the test. His wife and two children accompany him, but only he is taking the test. Only men, and only within a certain age range. The story begins with the first question: "Who is the patron saint of Wales and on which date is his feast day?" An easy one for Idir, since it is March 1, the same day he first met his future wife, Tidir. Part of the story is his musings about the questions, and other things they bring to mind, so we get a little of his history and his knowledge of British history and culture. Some of the questions are odd for a citizenship test, concerning Halloween traditions and English football clubs, or obscure historical events such as what year Richard III was killed. Idir knows it's 1485, but wonders how many native-born citizens know that, or why they would need to know it.
Idir is then distracted by activity outside the windows of the testing room. He sees a group of armed and masked men stealthily approaching the building, and shortly after they are inside and taking control of the facility. The apparent leader starts barking orders at everyone to get down on the floor, but one of the other test takers hesitates and starts questioning what the gunmen want. What they want at that time is to shoot him to set an example, but only in the leg. Idir is next to him on the floor, sees the wound is serious, and that the man will bleed out quickly if nothing is done. He risks antagonizing the gunmen by taking off his shirt and using it for a tourniquet. The terrorist leader dubs Idir the Samaritan and chooses him to take part in the next phase of their siege. They will shoot one hostage every fifteen minutes until their demands are met, and Idir has to decide which of two people they choose is to be the victim. Thus, his test goes from one of knowledge to one of having to answer an impossible question.
And...even that is not what The Test is actually about, but I won't give any more details. It's not only a test of Idir's sincerity and loyalty to his new home, but also a test of the British government and their immigration policies, and a test of individual members of the government tasked with implementing policy, down to the individual level of what people will allow or tolerate in the interests of society, civilization in general, and their own safety and peace of mind in particular. Idir does pass the test, but also fails. I leave it to others to discover what that means. The one test I'm willing to take is that of judging this story, which I rated 5 of 5 stars on Goodreads. The link I provided is for the paperback, which is reasonably priced at amazon, a bit more at Barnes & Noble. I got the Kindle file for just $3.99, and it's the same for the Nook, and likely the same or similar for other e-readers. Highly recommended.
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