The Free Lunch by Spider Robinson
Hardcover - 254 pages (August 2001) 
Tor; ISBN: 0312865244
Review by Ernest Lilley
Check out this book at: Amazon US / Amazon UK

Special Feature: Spider Robinson Interview

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