Spider Robinson,
The Free Lunch
(Tor, 2001)

Spider Robinson brings his trademark energy and wit to the table in The Free Lunch.

Welcome to Dreamworld, the perfect theme park where you can meet elves, dwarves and trolls and interact with characters in books as varied as The Princess Bride and Have Spacesuit Will Travel. You can visit Strawberry Fields, take a stroll down Penny Lane and eat lunch at Callahan's Place. The only downer about Dreamworld is that at the end of the day, the dream is over and it's time to go home.

For 12-year-old Mike, however, Dreamworld is more than a day's amusement. Mike's world has fallen apart, and he needs somewhere to go. He decides to try to live under Dreamworld, in the territory off-limits to tourists. On his attempt to disappear into Dreamworld, he encounters Annie, a veteran of 13 years of living under the theme park. Annie takes to Mike and shows him the ropes of survival.

Mike is there for barely a week when Annie makes a discovery: someone is messing around with Dreamworld procedures for some difficult to discern reason. At first, Annie suspects the one person who would like to see Dreamworld go out of business: Alonzo Haines, owner of Thrillworld, a faster-paced, violent theme park that has yet to reach Dreamworld's level of success.

As it happens, Haines is not responsible for the anomaly that Annie notices, and he has noticed it as well. He sends in a "specialist" to investigate, and suddenly Mike and Annie have twice as much trouble on their hands. And when they find out what's going on, the answer is totally unexpected.

The Free Lunch is a swiftly paced amalgam of science fiction, adventure and pure wish fulfillment. Mike and Annie are delightful characters with intelligence and drive; they are credible even when Mike is in his "whiz kid" mode because their developing friendship is full of the collisions and backtracking of real life. Haines and his henchman, Conway, are less dimensional and more cartoonish, yet the plot practically demands villains who all but twirl their mustaches.

It's a fun and engaging read, and it's even a bit poignant in places. The Free Lunch is also a good pick for reluctant teen readers who lean toward science fiction. As for the "free lunch" of the title -- I'm not giving that away. You'll have to read it to believe it.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 2 February 2002

Buy it from Amazon.com.