The Freedom Not to Choose: Sylvain Neuvel’s “The Test”

By Sean O’BrienSeptember 21, 2019

The Freedom Not to Choose: Sylvain Neuvel’s “The Test”

The Test by Sylvain Neuvel

SYLVAIN NEUVEL’S The Test (2019) offers a chilling vision of national decline, bureaucratic mania, and entrenched xenophobia in post-Brexit Britain. Set in a near-future United Kingdom, The Test is the Canadian SF writer’s first project since his widely successful trilogy The Themis Files, a story that begins with a child discovering a giant metal hand buried outside Deadwood, South Dakota. Shifting geographical focus from the United States to the United Kingdom, The Test follows protagonist Idir Jalil, an Iranian dentist seeking to gain citizenship for himself and his family, on the day of his British Citizenship Test. Where The Themis Files spans multiple decades and expands from its initial setting in Deadwood to encompass distant worlds in an epic tale of giant robots, ruined cities, and ancient alien civilizations, The Test takes place largely in a small room, over a single day, in a world that very much resembles our own.

The fictional world of The Test foregrounds the kinds of anxieties about migrancy and fanaticism that fuel the contemporary resurgence of xenophobia and ethno-nationalism in Britain and across the increasingly fortified Western world. In the story, we learn that the British Values Assessment (BVA) citizenship test was implemented six months after “the bombs went off,” and is designed in part to weed out “extremism.” Offering only a glimpse of the BVA network, the novella also hints at a “small army” of faceless administrators and technicians whose meticulous assessment measures decide the fate of migrants fleeing violence abroad with the calculating bureaucratic detachment of a points system. The only technological innovation in the story is the citizenship test itself, which — spoiler alert! — turns out to be a virtual reality simulation designed to test Idir, not on his knowledge of UK history and culture, but instead on the choices he makes when faced with life-or-death decisions.

The multiple-choice exam consists of 25 questions on topics that range from the Patron Saint of Wales to the Battle of Bosworth Field. Idir is optimistic about his chances, partly because he’s playing the odds: he’s heard “one in three people fails the test,” which means that, “as a simple matter of probabilities,” his family has “a sixty-six percent chance at citizenship.” But it’s not only the percentage-based logics of probabilities and statistical reasoning that give Idir his confidence. Idir firmly believes that exercising choice within these kinds of constraints is what life is all about. “Life is what you make of it,” he thinks to himself as he moves on to the next question. He’s only made it to question five — “The ‘Gunners’ is the nickname of which Premier League football club?” — when a gunshot rings out and the test really gets going.

As armed men storm the front door, Idir is reminded of why he left Iran; his wife Tidir, a journalist, was regularly detained and tortured by the Islamic Republic’s National Guard. When the attackers in the testing center threaten to execute hostages, Idir acts as a Good Samaritan, tending to another captive’s wounds. This brings him to the attention of the terrorist leader, who demands that Idir choose which hostages will live or die. The narrative then shifts to a control room where a trainee named Deep tallies up Idir’s score while the simulation plays out on computer screens and Idir lies unconscious on a hospital bed with electrodes on his temples. Five points for politeness and courtesy. No penalties for sexism or racism. Two points for recycling a plastic wrapper. Five points for helping the wounded man. Idir is doing well so far. These factors are only a prelude to the real test, however: Idir is presented with two hostages and asked to choose which hostage the terrorist will shoot. If he refuses, both will die. The BVA test is a data-driven experiment with largely predictable outcomes, and Idir’s choices when faced with impossible decisions will decide whether his family receives citizenship or deportation.

In this way, the novella conforms to the aesthetic protocols of what Jane Elliott calls “the microeconomic mode.” Elliott’s recent monograph, The Microeconomic Mode (2018), is all about what happens to agency when matters of life and death are reduced to the binary logics of rational choice. As Elliott summarizes:

In this mode, abstraction results from a focus on delimited or capsule worlds in which option and decision, action and effect, have been extracted from everyday contexts and thus made unusually legible — for example, the life raft, the desert island, the medical experiment, the prison cell. Extremity registers in forms of painful, grotesque, or endangered embodiment, including deprivation, torture, mutilation, self-mutilation, and various threats to life itself. At the intersection of these two formal features, we find plots that produce what I call suffering agency: protagonists must make agonized binary choices between horrific options, each of which involves intense physical and potentially deadly consequences. In its fullest manifestations, the aesthetic effect of this mode is brutal in every sense of the word: crude, harsh, ruthless, unrelenting, and unpleasantly precise.

We can now add the simulated test environment to Elliott’s list of capsule worlds. Faced with the torturous decision to either select a hostage to die or risk getting himself killed, Idir becomes what Elliott calls a “subject of life interest,” that is, a subject for whom choice and survival merge in such a way as to make agency both a form of suffering and a function of a basic will to live. Here, one life exists at the expense of another. This is what Elliott calls “binary life,” where “a recurring either/or logic exemplified in the survival game gives narrative form to this fusion of human interaction with serial binary decision.” In the abstracted simulation of the BVA, Idir must weigh the options — security guard or architect, bachelor or family man — and choose who lives and who dies. In Elliott’s words, Idir’s “insertion […] into a gamelike or faux-laboratory setting,” combined with “the gruesome physicalization of individual choice as torture or self-torture” and “the forced enactment of kill-or-be-killed, him-or-me decisions,” together form a pared down world “in which choice becomes quite literally a matter of life or death.”

Idir’s assessment is also a test for Deep. The young technician is undergoing his own final observation before graduating from the training program to become a full-time member of the BVA team. Part of this work is to push test subjects past what the BVA team call “reactance,” or the resistance subjects display when faced with kill scenarios that restrict their “behavioral freedom.” This is what K1, the first kill scenario, is designed to do. As Deep puts it, “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.” No one submits to the protocols of the microeconomic mode without coercion.

Deep has also grown fond of Idir and wants him to pass the test. He’s counting on Idir to choose self-sacrifice despite what he sees as the biological imperative inherent in natural selection to favor survival. The trick, for Deep, is to

shift the focus from the individual to the group to which it belongs. Social dynamics and game theory: consider the probability of survival as a resource and the goal of K3 becomes Pareto efficiency, a distribution strategy where one person’s situation cannot be improved without making another person’s worse.

Since offering your own life in exchange for the lives of the hostages is an automatic pass for K3, Deep figures his best bet is to have the terrorists force Idir to choose between his wife Tidir and one of their children. When the terrorist refuses to accept Idir’s self-sacrifice and forces him to choose who dies, Idir chooses his wife over his son and all hell breaks loose in the control room. In his excitement, Deep has forgotten a crucial element of the BVA: predictability. The BVA relies on statistical behavioral probabilities, and a man who has been forced to have his wife murdered is no longer a predictable test subject. And while Idir ultimately surprises everyone by taking drastic measures to pass the test, memories of his choices haunt him in his new life as a UK citizen with a small dental practice in Bayswater, poisoning his relationships with his wife and children. This is the true cost of citizenship for Idir and his family.

At the dawn of the Reagan era, as the macroeconomic regulatory mechanisms of Keynesianism gave way to the microeconomic ethos of neoliberalism, Milton and Rose D. Friedman published Free to Choose: A Personal Statement (1980). Espousing the benefits of the free market over government intervention, Free to Choose makes the case for maximizing choice as a means to foster prosperity and ensure personal freedom. What The Test makes plain is that there’s nothing inherently liberating about choice. When electorates are forced to choose between revanchist ethno-nationalism and neoliberalism, everyone is a suffering agent. The Friedmans famously supported open borders so long as migrants were not a cost to the state, arguing that free immigration and welfare were incompatible. With the neoliberal project in full collapse, the new formula is apparently to abolish freedom of movement while maintaining austerity. As government bureaucrats push populations into survival-game scenarios in which migrant lives are weighed against the financial vitality of national economies in decline, what’s really at stake is the freedom not to choose.


Sean O’Brien is lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London.

LARB Contributor

Sean O’Brien is lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. His research has appeared in Cultural Critique, Discourse, Science Fiction Studies, Vector, and Bloomsbury’s Companion to Marx. He is currently at work on his first book, Precarity and the Historicity of the Present: American Culture from Boom to Crisis.


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