Spider Robinson

Tor Books / 256 pages / 1st edition (August 18, 2001)

ISBN: 0312865244

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.