The Test – Sylvain Neuvel (Short Story Review)

I really like the stuff that Sylvain Neuvel writes. I was impressed before when reading (or more listening to) The Themis Files, and now I was wow’d by this 75 page short story that manages in a short and compact format to tell such a good story.

The Story

When the book starts it all looks really straightforward. A middle-aged Iranian man left Teheran with his wife and two children to come to Great Britain. He’s taking the “Life in the UK Test” which for those of you who don’t know is a 26 question test which checks the knowledge of any would be citizen in the important dates and customs of UK.

Question 1: Who is the patron saint of Wales and on which date is his feast day?

He responds to each question and through his voice and thoughts we find out he’s married, he loves his wife, he loves his children, he’s kind to strangers and he’s a dedicated father and a decent human being.

These people have no sense of humour whatsoever. It must be a requirement for working at Immigration. Hello! My name is Idir Jalil, this is my wife Tidir. . . . Nothing. Not even a smile. Idir and Tidir. That usually gets us a chuckle, at least. Not here. I did not give up. You can change the world with one smile. Do you know the difference between a customs officer and a dentist? There isn’t one. They both do cavity searches. No sense of humour, I tell you. There was a redheaded man in the waiting room who made a crude joke about the receptionist’s cleavage. His joke wasn’t funny, but I have a lot of good dentist jokes. What does the dentist of the year get? A little plaque. . . .

I was content about reading his thoughts and musings about the test he was taken, purely because I had similar thoughts when I‘ve taken it.

Question 4: King Richard III of the House of York was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in what year? [..] I wonder who writes these questions. How will knowing this make me a better member of British society? [..] I have a feeling only the people taking this test know the answer to that question. What could anyone possibly do with that information? It would have come in handy in, say, 1485, if one were travelling the country. Darling, perhaps Bosworth Field is not the best spot for a picnic today. The horses are fine.

The plot thickens as some masked guys carrying heavy guns storm into the test center and threaten to kill the people inside as part of a terrorist ploy to get money from the government.

The amazing part of this book is that it’s all in a simulation. Idir doesn’t know it but he had been previously drugged, tied in a hospital bed and introduced into a simulation that was designed to test whether he would be a good citizen or not by testing his innate values by seeing who he would pick to be killed in a controlled environment. Basically Sophie’s choice.

He found comfort in knowing that humans are predictable things, that we each come with a lot of the same baggage of innate and learned little quirks.

We are presented with the operators who explain how the whole thing works and why people are easy to read in life-or-death situations. The four kill scenarios check:

  • Kill1: two random people – ensure that the subject will refuse to pick and see that his actions have consequences so he is FORCED to pick on round 2 when both subjects are killed.
  • Kill2: A security guard and an architect. Security guard will be chosen for successful step completion as the reasoning was that he has danger in his job description
  • Kill3: Between two people closer to the applicant (at operator’s discretion)
  • Kill4: Significant person to be chosen

The operator mucks Kill3 though by making Idir choose between his wife and his son.


System justification is the idea that many of our needs can be satisfied by defending and justifying the status quo. It gives stability to our political and economic systems because people are inherently inclined to defend it. It prevents people at a disadvantage from questioning the system that disadvantages them, makes people buy the inevitability of social inequity, ignore or support policies that hurt them. It fosters dependence on government, law enforcement. It discourages vigilantism and makes it more difficult to get someone to actively participate in a virtual-reality simulated terrorist killing. K1 helps establish their involvement as part of a new system the subject will find ways to justify. System justification is one of many decision-avoidance mechanisms we carry around. When faced with a choice, humans almost invariably seek a no-action, no-change option, even when one of the presented alternatives is quantifiably and logically more advantageous.

One person dying is obviously better than two people dying. Here the aversion to decision-making is reinforced by a phenomenon called reactance: when we feel that someone, or something, is threatening or eliminating our behavioural freedom, even just limiting our options, our innate reaction is to try to re-establish that freedom. It often translates to our challenging rules or authority. Tell a child he has to play with toy number one and that he can’t touch toy number two, you can bet he’ll play, or at least want to play, with toy number two. It doesn’t matter how unattractive that toy is. The grass is always greener. When told they must choose who lives or dies, that they no longer have the right not to choose, subjects instinctively want to reassert that right. More than anything, the BVA experiment creates a state of cognitive dissonance, a simultaneous belief in two contradictory things that creates inconsistency. Sending one person to their death is wrong, therefore I should not choose anyone. Not saving one person is wrong, therefore I should choose. Does not compute. Humans use little conundrums such as this one to defeat evil robots or out-of-control AI on television shows, but our own brains are surprisingly ill-equipped to deal with these types of inconsistencies. The discriminative stimulus, the death of the two hostages, serves to weaken the subject’s decision-avoidance mechanisms and status quo biases. K1 pushes the subject to re-create consistency by reranking his or her contradictory beliefs. Letting two people die is more wrong than choosing who dies. Long story short, no one chooses on the first kill.

I’m not going to divulge too much of the rest but the ethical aspect and the two intertwined stories (of the operator Deet and Idir) are amazing to read and will thoroughly recommend this book to our book club for discussion.


About the author

SYNE SYLVAIN NEUVEL dropped out of high school at age fifteen. Along the way, he has been a journalist, worked in soil decontamination, sold ice cream in California, and peddled furniture across Canada. He received a PhD in linguistics from the University of Chicago. He taught linguistics in India and worked as a software engineer in Montreal. He is also a certified translator, though he wishes he were an astronaut. He likes to tinker, dabbles in robotics, and is somewhat obsessed with Halloween. He absolutely loves toys; his girlfriend would have him believe that he has too many, so he writes about aliens and giant robots as a blatant excuse to build action figures (for his son, of course). He is the author of the Themis Files series: Sleeping Giants (“One of the most promising series kick-offs in recent memory”—NPR), Waking Gods (“In a word: unputdownable.”— Kirkus Reviews ), and Only Human (“Two [giant, robotic] thumbs up!”— Kirkus Reviews ).

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