The Free Lunch
by Spider Robinson
Tor, 2001

The Free Lunch is a science fiction novel set in the near future (2023) and falling just a few notches up from the midpoint of the hard science fiction scale. It is suitable for young adults, although it contains unusually sadistic criminals, so perhaps not very young adults.

Twelve-year-old Mike is running away from home -- and he's doing it right. He has worked out a cunning plan to sneak into the coolest theme park in the world: Dreamworld. His plan works great, until he hits one unexpected factor... someone else has had the same idea, and is already living in the access tunnels and hidden nooks under the park. He has found Mother Elf, a woman who has been 'homeless' in the park for years -- and who knows more about it than most employees do. Despite being wary of newcomers, Mother Elf takes a shine to him, and allows him to stay in the park, as long as he follows her rules and uses good grammar.

For the most part, living in a theme park is all fun and games, but it's not long before they discover not one but two major threats to the park's continued existence. First, a major competitor is trying to bring down Dreamworld once and for all, and would like to have Mother Elf's knowledge of the park in order to help him. Even if it means blackmail. And second... well no one quite knows what the second thing is, but it appears that someone is smuggling people out of Dreamworld... without smuggling them in first.

This is a fairly good book, and very recognizable as one of Spider Robinson's. The characters are strong, intelligent, sensitive, and highly emotional. The plot is nothing spectacular, but is well-treated and well-paced. Robinson expects to have fun with his readers, even if it means messing with the story a bit; Dreamland, for example, has areas dedicated to Heinlein and Callahan's, and when his favorite books aren't appropriate to model theme park rides after, he finds even less subtle ways to recommend them.

The characters and the writing style will be very familiar to any Robinson fan, but perhaps a bit odd to anyone who is not familiar with him. Regardless, a fair amount happens in 250 pages, and if it's not groundbreaking science fiction, it is still a good read. I would recommend it for anyone who likes Robinson's works, and for any younger readers (perhaps 14-up) of science fiction who are looking to try out new authors.

ISBN-10: 1470836432
ISBN-13: 978-1470836436

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