Whether a story takes place in a dystopian near-future, a far future somewhere in the stars beyond Earth, or a fantasy world that is both the distant past and distant future of our planet, people like to subject one another to tests. Even more than that, people—Wise Ones, mentors, faction leaders—enjoy making those tests be about something completely different than what they’re supposedly testing for. All the better to get a genuine reaction out of the person being tested, and making for a compelling story about the prizes that lay beyond these trials, and the real sacrifices it takes to reach them. Read on for five exams, measured in everything from 25 questions to infinite droplets of water, that are covers for the true tests of character.
Some spoilers for certain titles, though not for anything that’s new—that’d be like giving away the answers before you take the test, and where’s the fun in that?
Faction Aptitude Test (Divergent by Veronica Roth)
So… if you’re brave, you take a knife, makes sense. If you’re kind, you take… cheese? OK, maybe because you’re planning on feeding someone else, we’re still following along. Submitting to a rabid dog means you’re curious and intelligent (or have common sense, but sure), while saving a kid from said snappy pup makes you selfless and/or brave? Oh, and then there’s an unfortunately burnt guy you’re supposed to not help? Seems like there would be an easier and waaay less symbolic way to test for which virtue you have a higher percentage of. Or, you know, take that new Big Five personality test with the nifty pentagon results.
Of course, Divergent’s aptitude test isn’t really about sorting kids into factions, it’s about figuring out who doesn’t fit into one of the five slots.
British Values Assessment (The Test by Sylvain Neuvel)
If Idir Jalil fails the citizenship test that he’s spent months studying for, he will forfeit not only his own security, but that of his wife Tadir and their two children. Twenty-five questions separate his fate between continuing on as a dentist living in London with his family, and immediate deportation. But Idir drilled himself on this knowledge, on knowing exactly what he needs to in order to belong—it’s only twenty-five questions.
Until, just a few pencil scratches in, terrorists descend upon the immigration building and take hostages. When kind, well-meaning Idir attempts to intervene, he is instead forced to make an unthinkable call: which stranger lives, and which stranger dies? A Black Mirror-esque cautionary tale on what it means to be a citizen in the near-future, The Test asks one simple question: How do you value a life when all you have is multiple choice?
The Testing (The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau)
At the peak of the dystopian YA boom, no idea that could reasonably be put through a dystopian filter was off-limits. The Bachelor? Yep. A “Cure” for love? You betcha. SAT tests? Hoo boy, yes. America’s penchant for standardized aptitude testing apparently cannot be erased from existence, even if the country has become the United Commonwealth thanks to a seven-stage war leading to worldwide devastation. In this radically reformed society, education is available to a select few via the foreboding University, and the Testing that grants or denies admission is an actual matter of life-and-death. And while you can study for the Testing—in fact, many a child spends their entire adolescence preparing, only to not even get the chance to sit for the exam—the real trial is not about having the right answers.
Sure, there’s a Q&A portion; even in dystopia, there are multiple-choice tests. In this case, it’s actually a smart infodump in which protagonist Cia and her fellow Testing candidates must correctly supply information about the aforementioned Seven Stages of War. But that’s not all. Raise your hand if you remember when the SAT went from 1600 points to 2400 by adding a written essay component—that is, tacking on an entire third that depending on your ability to write a persuasive essay either gave you an easy boost or endless stress about scoring high enough to get into your favorite college. Now imagine that instead of a surprise essay to prepare for, it’s a Saw-like room of deadly experiments, followed by a Hunger Games-esque quest back to Tosu City with only your wits and whatever random items you brought from home—oh, and your every move is being recorded so that the Testers can fine-tune your trials. Standardized, these tests are not.
Battle School Final Simulation (Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card)
Command School is full of all manner of mindfucks, from the nihilistic and unwinnable “Giant’s Drink” game to brutal battle simulations meant to prepare young Ender and his cohort for real battle against the alien Formic race. But as precocious Ender discovers, or creates, loopholes—like killing the giant instead of having to choose between two cups of poison—the games adapt to his cold-blooded choices, and his instructors exploit that viciousness in new and increasingly cruel experiments.
This negative feedback loop gets so bad that by the time Ender is embarking on his final test of Battle School, a large-scale simulation in which he wages war with the “buggers” above their own homeworld. Nearly crushed under the abuse of Command School and thinking this is his perfect chance for expulsion, Ender ruthlessly sacrifices his ships to blow up the homeworld, a kamikaze solution for a simulation he believes is unwinnable. Except that instead he discovers that he was actually fighting in the real war, which he has won—but at the cost of the lives of his soldiers, and by committing genocide against the entire Formic race. Gives new meaning to the term pass/fail.
Wise One Training (The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson)
Is wisdom dipping your finger into a bucket to transfer water from one pail to another drop by agonizing drop? At first Aviendha thinks it must be, as this inscrutable and tedious task is assigned to her by the Wise Ones as some sort of bizarre punishment. But as her patience grows more tattered and her skin more pruney, she finally snaps. Confronting Bair, Amys, and Melaine, she gives them an ultimatum: they tell her, straightforwardly, what it is they want her to do, or they send her away. And instead of another punishment… she gains acceptance into their ranks:
“No woman is ready to join us until she has declared herself ready,” Amys continued. “She must present herself as our equal.”
“A punishment is not a true punishment unless you accept it, Aviendha,” Bair said, still smiling. “We thought you ready weeks ago, but you stubbornly continued to obey.”
“Almost, I began to think you prideful, girl,” Melaine added with a fond smile.
Turns out wisdom is deciding that you are ready instead of being told you are.