The Free Lunch
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.
Spider Robinson's Official Website
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