A little later on I decided to read one of Spider’s non-Callahan books, and picked up this one. Lo and behold, I found it was chock full of the ideas he’d been playing with in his columns. SF novels are great places to play with gadgets and ideas, and Spider spared no expence in this one.
Spider doesn’t write dark books. He believes in redemption and likes to end on a positive note. The Free Lunch, for instance, takes place mostly in the world’s bestest (I did that on purpose) amusement park and features two central characters who are trying to redeem themselves against all odds.
Annie and Mike are both refugees from the world. Annie moved into Dreamworld when it was being built, to escape the persecution of being different and intelligent and compassionate. Mike is a escapee from the child welfare system, where his former teacher/mother left him when she finally overdosed on drugs, a tragedy for which he feels responsible.
We begin with Mike, a 12 year old boy, trying to find a way to break into Dreamworld and live undetected, as a homeless person, in the safest place in the world.
Dreamworld is Disneyland uncorrupted. It not only features lots of great traditional myth themes, but also has Spider’s own Callahan’s Bar, the settings for most of the Heinlein juvenile novels, a place called Johnny’s Tree (which looks out over Penny lane and Strawberry Fields), and lots of other references familiar to fans of science fiction and sixties’ rock and roll.
Mike is saved from being caught by Annie, and initiated into the secrets of the theme park and how to live symbiotically there. Their bonding is delightful to watch.
But there are problems. There is the evil competitor named Haines, who owns the much darker Thrillworld, and wants to ruin the dream.
And there are too many damn trolls. Somehow or other extra little people are leaving each day that aren’t part of the cast, and don’t ever seem to have entered the place by normal means.
Mike thinks it’s an invasion of aliens, beaming into the washrooms and getting ready to take over the planet, but it’s even weirder than that.
TANSTAAFL (there ain't’ no such thing as a free lunch) was a concept that was built into a lot of Robert Heinlein’s novels, but he also filled them with the idea that there might be people who would like to help others just because it was the right thing to do.
Spider Robinson has often used that notion in the Callahan stories and here he applies it to the larger problems of the Crazy Years, providing the world with a way out of its present mess.
It’s not a simple plan, and working it out places Annie, Mike, and the “trolls” in some danger. The way it all works out is ingenious, fast paced, and fun.