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The Free Lunch

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The Free Lunch by Spider Robinson
Hardcover - 254 pages (August 2001)
Tor; ISBN: 0312865244

SEP 02, 2001

excerpt from
Monuments From the Future

THE FREE LUNCH, by Spider Robinson, (Tor/Tom Doherty, $22.95) is a fast-moving homage to the lighter side of Robert A. Heinlein. Twelve-year old Mike, a misfit genius with a terrible secret to hide, goes to ground in a futuristic theme park called Dreamworld. Dreamworld is Disney World done right, minus the fake nostalgia and blatant commercialization. It celebrates the power of imagination by creating 3-D simulacra of works of art ranging from Ariosto's ''Orlando Furioso'' to Heinlein's young-adult novel ''Have Spacesuit Will Travel'' to the Beatles' ''Strawberry Fields Forever.'' Just about everybody loves Dreamworld's ''vast colorful kaleidoscope of compatible fantasies'' -- which leads to complications when Mike discovers that someone else has already made a home there.

Annie, a midget old enough to be his mother, has lived in Dreamworld for 13 years without revealing her presence to visitors or staff. She takes Mike in hand, and they settle down to a long happy life together, until the little matter of ''too many Trolls'' alerts them to a danger that threatens not only their safe haven but also the future of the entire planet. Robinson knows how to generate tension without losing his sense of humor, a more difficult trick than you might imagine.

Thanks to Walter Bruce Sinclair of White Dwarf Books for being kind enough to re-type this article from ANALOG into an e-mail, sparing Spider and Jeanne a trip to town. Sweet man.

Analog Science Fiction and Fact, February 2002
The Reference Library, Tom Easton

I hadn't heard much from Spider Robinson for awhile, so it was a pleasure to find THE FREE LUNCH in my mail. It was a plesure to read it too, and I am quite sure you will agree.

The premise is simple: Disney has been topped by Dreamland, a theme park whose rides and areas derive in part from the many realms of science fiction and fantasy. Fireworks, elves, unicorns, trolls, and Lummox the Star Beast. Heinlein is there, and so is Robinson (Callahan's Bar, of course). The fun stuff, you know.

And here comes Mike, a twelve-year-old boy fleeing the Real World. He's smart and clever, and he has a plan, to slip off the Unicorn's Glade ride, disguise himself as an Elf, and merge with the scenery, to move into Dreamland permanently. He barks his shin, but he's doing fine, really, until an audioanimatronic Elf whirs up to him and says, "If you leave that bloodstain out there on the set, they'll know, and they won't rest until they find you."

Meet Annie, who has been "Under" for the last thirteen years and is known only as a rumor of the "Mother Elf". She takes a liking to Mike and shows him the ropes. Meanwhile, far away, the evil master of Thrillworld, a darker, more violent theme park, is scheming to destroy Dreamland. He even thinks he has a handle, for surveillance has shown more Trolls leaving the grounds at the end of a shift than ever went it at the beginning. Something strange is going on, and if he can just figure out what, he can blackmail or expose and thereby destroy. So he rubs his hands and twists his mustache and chortles and calls his black-hearted henchman, Conway.

Meanwhile again, Annie has also become aware of the extra Trolls. She too wants to figure out what they're about, but not to destroy Dreamland. She's afraid they're part of some nefarious plot aimed at her home, and she wants quite fiercely to defend. Mike's with her, and when he suggests that the extra Trolls are beaming down from a mother ship somewhere Out There...

Conway tries to kidnap Annie, but Mike ingeniously and courageously foils the scheme. Then he intercepts a pair of surplus Trolls, Hormat and Durl, figures out where they really came from, and tries like mad to get them to say what they're up to. Meanwhile, here comes Conway again...

All's well that ends well, of course, and all ends very well indeed here, albeit with a surprising note of bittersweet at the end.

Mike and Annie are the kind of characters that return to mind long after the book is done, and the tale is as jaunty as only Spider can make it in his Callahan mode. How can you possibly fail to enjoy this one?

And how can Hollywood fail to see the potential here?

review by Peter Heck, Asimov's Science Fiction April 2002:

THE FREE LUNCH by Spider Robinson
Tor; $22.95 (hc)
ISBN: 0-312-86524-4

The title of this one ought to conjure up echoes of Heinlein, whose influence is apparent here as throughout Robinson's work. The key phrase, of course, is "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch"--Heinlein's reminder that, in the real world, everything has its cost. But just what the cost is may not be apparent until late in the game.

The protagonist is Mike, a young boy who has planned to escape from his unbearable home life by hiding in the behindscenes area of a giant amusement park, Dreamworld, which combines the best characteristics of the Disney parks with other icons of popular culture. But almost as soon as Mike's plan is underway, he finds himself taken up by Annie, another stowaway behind the scenes of Dreamworld. Annie is a dwarf, who makes use of her short stature to blend in with the scenery in some of the park's fantastic settings. For some reason, Annie has taken a liking to Mike, and so permits him to share her hideaway in the supposedly uninhabited areas beneath the surface of Dreamworld that the customers never visit.

At first the plot gets most of its mileage from Annie's educating Mike in the various ways of getting food, shelter, and other necessities of life while living undetected in the nooks and crannies of Dreamworld. Mike is a precocious fellow, and he and Annie trade bits of lore--how to make coffee, how the park uses subsonics to control customers' moods, and so forth. He finds her library--predictably including a large fraction of SF and fantasy books and tapes. And we learn a fair amount about the park itself, not just behind the scenes but out front, where some of the most popular attractions include "Johnny's Tree," a homage to John Lennon's vision. Much of this will ring bells with Robinson's fans, representing as it does the author's own favorite bits of literature and art. So far, nothing unusual.

The second level of the plot kicks in when Annie reveals that something fishy is going on in the park as a whole. Somebody is masquerading as a park employee, arriving from someplace unknown and leaving the park with the rest of the crew at closing; who is doing it, and why? The two of them begin to investigate the mystery, and Mike quickly comes up with a plausible scenario. But just as they begin to follow it up, they run head on into still another complication, one with more direct consequences--and no small degree of danger-- for them.

Robinson effectively jacks up the tension as the plot progresses, and gets considerable mileage out of his two protagonists--who many readers will recognize as variants on two common character types in Heinlein's work. At the end, the meaning of the title comes clear. It's good to see Robinson putting out a standalone book, and even better to report that it's one of the best things he's done in years.

by Spider Robinson

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I doubt if it is coincidental - probably more like fate - but the majority of books I have read lately have either been very close in style to that of my favorite author, Robert A. Heinlein, or else they evoke thoughts of his work even if not necessarily written in homage to him. In the case of this novel, it is a little bit of both. The two main characters are reminiscent of those that populated Heinlein's novels, both juvenile and adult, but I feel the plot is somewhat different than RAH would have used, and it is also developed in a more sentimental fashion.

The story is set in 2023 in Dreamworld, a vast amusement park devoted to all of the best in the worlds of fantasy and science fiction. Several of Heinlein's characters and fictional settings are mentioned along with the creations of other writers obviously favorites of Robinson's, some with which I am familiar, some not, but I am sure other SF fans will recognize them. One special section of the park is Strawberry Fields, based on the song lyrics of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

If I'm not mistaken, we never learn the last names of the two main characters; we only know them as Mike and Annie. Mike is a pre-teen, orphaned under tragic circumstances for which he feels responsible. He is torn between difficult choices - submit to the uncertainties of foster care or attempt to face life on his own. As another option he decides to "go under" in Dreamworld, hide in the bowels of the computers and machinery that run the magical realm. Annie is an adult, although on first meeting her Mike does not realize this since she is a midget and disguised as one of the many gnomes and trolls that populate the park. Some are animatronic, some are hired actors, but Annie happens to be the only other person who has successfully gone Under Dreamworld, and she has been at it thirteen years, almost as long as the park has been operating.

Annie decides to help Mike, since she senses in him a kindred spirit, and she also comes to realize he is exceptionally intelligent and perceptive. On several different occasions she expresses both surprise and delight in his ability to reason out the complicated procedures necessary to successfully remain hidden from the vast security measures in place in Dreamworld. Together they must face a danger to their new home, one they feel threatens its very existence. They believe the danger is from Alonzo Haines, the creator of the rival themepark, Thrillworld, and he does have a hand in the procedures but only in a peripheral way. Haines himself is puzzled by his own security reports that tell him that every day for several weeks, at least a dozen more "little people" are clocking out of Dreamworld's employee station than clocked in at the start of the shifts. The discovery of where they are coming from is enough to shake Mike and Annie's confidence in the continued existence of Earth itself, much less Dreamworld.

To go into details much further would be to spoil too many of the surprises in store if you wish to read this book, which I do recommend. The best thing about it is the developing relationship between Mike and Annie, the boy who so desperately needs a family and the woman who had resigned herself to never having one herself. Together they make quite a team. Even though there are several passages that nearly brought me to tears, there is also quite a bit of joyousness in this book. One of the things I loved is when Mike discovers the books Annie has been able to smuggle into her hideaway, several of them also his favorites (and mine as well). A mention of one in particular brought a big smile to my face, one of the funniest, and at the same time, profound books I have ever read - Will Cuppy's The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. Anyone who holds that book in high esteem automatically gets my respect.

In the introduction, Robinson says that this book was originally going to be a collaboration with John Varley, but for some reason they could not get in sync with the project. Since it was Robinson's idea initially he went ahead and completed it on his own. The same thing happened in reverse with Varley's latest novel, Red Thunder, which I will also be reviewing soon. A lot of the books I've read in the last few years have for the most part been longer and more rambling than I felt the story needed, but in the case of The Free Lunch, it was not long enough. Oh, long enough to tell the story Robinson wanted for sure, but not long enough for this reader who would like to spend many more hours within the magical realm of Dreamworld.

The Free Lunch by Spider Robinson
Hardcover - 254 pages (August 2001)
Tor; ISBN: 0312865244
Review by Ernest Lilley

I owe Spider Robinson an apology, and boy am I glad.

The title of his latest book alone is enough to raise the hackles of any Heinlein fan, or anyone who has the slightest idea of what TANSTAAFL means. I had an orange button with that acronym on my backpack for years, when I was very young.

There are few things I'm sure of. One is the first law of thermodynamics: You can't make something out of nothing, and once you've got something, you're stuck with it. Another is that you either pay for what you get directly or everybody winds up paying for it indirectly. Somebody pays, and eventually, the bill comes back to you. There aint no such thing as a Free Lunch.

So I dove into Spider Robinson's new book, even though it was about a kid in an amusement park, eager to see if Callahan's Author had slipped a cog or discovered perpetual motion.

Life has isn't worth living and it just got worse. Where are you going to go next? Dreamworld!

Mike, 12 years old and a classic Heinlein protagonist, is bright, resourceful, plucky, well mannered and way down on his luck. So far down that he's ready to give up on the real world completely, and become a stowaway of sorts, not in a ship bound for the stars, but behind the scenes at the world's greatest theme park, where he can pass for a dwarf, with a few props, or a kid in a t shirt, because he is, or a midget maintenance worker...because he's small. For now anyway.

So he plans his escape from the real world, dons his props and steps backstage.

Dreamworld is made up of the stories we know and love, though I don't know how Spider Robinson thinks the builder got trademark and copyrights for Heinlein World, Callahan's Bar, and I'm willing to bet, a wharf somewhere with Travis McGee's boat tied up to it...and more. It's a place where everyone is happy, pretty much all the time, made by Thomas Immega, the inventor of the Pap-Zapper a cheerful adaptation of starwars anti-missile technology that shines a low power laser into any camera lenses in its line of sight. Pop stars paid billions for them and Thomas set to work making the best theme park in the world with his money.

Thirteen years later, the founder is gone, but the park lives on, much to the distress of the man who opened Thrillworld on the other side of the country. If Dreamworld leaves you full of hope and joy and happiness...well, Thrillworld leaves you full of adrenalin. Its creator's life ambition is to bring down the walls of the better world...and he'll stop at nothing to do it.

After Mike slips behind the stage, he finds that he's not alone. Ever since Dreamworld opened there have been rumors of a mysterious figure, the Mother Elf, who watches over and cares for Dreamworld behind the scenes. She's real, and her name is Annie. She's a cheerful, brilliant Heinleinesque character, and her digs are a set of suites hidden in the bowels of Dreamworld, where she's hacked the security grid and made a life for herself keeping an eye on a world she finds much easier to deal with than the one outside. She's a midget, by the way, as are many of the employees of Dreamworld.

Annie saves Mike from making his first misstep and decides, on a very uncharacteristic impulse, to take him in and show him the ropes. If you've read Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, you'll recognizer her as the a reincarnation of the old man/secret agent who takes in a young slave at the beginning...but spun out of Spider Robinson's imagination this time. Still, the hallmarks are all there.

Things never settle into a routine for Mike and Annie though, because tapped into the park security system and ever vigilant, she notices that a handful more workers are leaving the park everyday than are showing up for work. Having eliminated every rational notion on where they might be coming from, she and Mike start working on the irrational ones, and the fun begins in earnest.

The evil theme park owner has noticed the same thing, as vigilant as Annie but with opposite motive, and is now out to find the source of the extra workers too, so that he can expose whatever Dreamworld is up to.

The whole thing is a lot of fun. Though Spider says it started out as a collaboration between him and John Varley, it's really a collaboration between him and Robert Anson Heinlein, and one of the better collaborations at that. There are tributes to RAH all over the place, theme park settings from your favorite Heinlein juveniles to run through, and forces of good, evil and Dreamworld itself reminds me a bit of the festival of characters at the end of Number of the Beast. Though more lucid.

Does Spider Robinson come up with a Free Lunch? Ironically, I'll hand him that, though it's one you have to work really hard to earn.

So, go out and pick this up for your Heinlein collection...I mean, to flesh out your Spider Robinson shelf...or just for fun.

There Aint No Such Thing As A Free Lunch - The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein, 19??
© 2001 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu

The Free Lunch
Spider Robinson
Tor, 256 pages

A review by Lisa DuMond

It has to have crossed the mind of anyone who's ever visited a theme park: surely, there must be a place to hide and wait until the park closes. Just jump off the "Haunted Mansion" at just the right time and no one will notice your absence and you can stay there forever. You could actually live in your fantasy world and be a part of the magic. Think about it -- you could go "underground."

(Just so no one pines away, wishing they could run away and join the circus... Go to work in one of these fantastical theme parks and the allure fades fast enough.)

Mike wants to go underground in Dreamworld in the worst way, and he's just the kind of smart kid who will actually succeed. What he finds on the other side of the "cast only" signs is going to be nothing like what he expects. Annie, his new guardian in Dreamworld, has some eye-opening pointers for him. Together, they will uncover a mysterious situation that threatens to pull the entire park down around them. If things go as wrong as they possibly can, the Earth may be the ultimate casualty.

Too many trolls are leaving Dreamworld. Doesn't sound like a serious problem, but where are all those trolls coming from?

Robinson has hit upon a topic that kids of all ages can enjoy. At times, The Free Lunch seems solidly aimed at a YA audience. Then, some nasty scenes come along that are enough to make the reader hope that no one under the age of 17 is tuning in. Just to be on the safe side, don't plan on using it for a bedtime story. Or, do use it, if you want your kids to avoid theme parks for the rest of their lives. Violence or not, the YA audience is going to eat it up.

The Free Lunch is an entertaining gallop through a side of amusement parks that most people have never seen. Robinson wisely chose to invent his own park, avoiding the bothersome problem of remaining true to the details of an existing park -- not to mention the ever-present threat of litigation from the Big Names. He's moved his fantasy land into the future to take advantage of some nifty special effects that aren't quite ready yet to make Dreamworld the park we'd all like to visit someday.

If you like your fiction on the light side, The Free Lunch is just the right diversion. No earth-shattering truths are going to come to you. Your world view is unlikely to change. There are no complex theories to master. This is not that kind of book. Read it for a good time. Enjoy the novelty. Save the soul-searching for the next novel. We can all stand to take it easy once in awhile.

Copyright © 2001 Lisa DuMond