In the past I’ve written about some fictional versions of Mars, including those by Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis and John Keir Cross. This is my favorite by far.
The alien creature pictured on the dust jacket (which I’ve never owned) is actually Earth colonist Jim Marlowe wearing a protective suit. In his arms is a Martian pet he calls Willis, who plays a major part in the story. Jim and his friend Frank, their families, and many other colonists are living a nomadic life, with half the year spent in the southern colony of Charax, the other half in the northern colony of Copais. Earth government on Mars, and the Earth company that supports the colonies are at Syrtis Minor on the Martian equator. Jim and Frank are about to head there for college. Willis is a most interesting and amusing creature, full of curiosity, intelligent, able to speak English, and also able to record and play back anything he hears, which can cause problems for Jim, but he’s determined to bring the “bouncer,” as the colonists call them, with him, and does so.
On the way to school, Jim and Frank have a layover at Cynia Station, and they go exploring in the nearby Martian city. There we learn much more about real Martians, who are highly intelligent, mysterious, and sometimes dangerous, but Willis makes new Martian friends right away, and the boys are taken deep into the underground Martian dwellings where they ceremonially “share water” with Gekko and other Martians, making them water brothers, a rare honor. Gekko and his tribe are very impressed with the friendship between Jim and Willis, and want Willis to stay with them, but he insists on leaving with Jim and Frank.
When the boys get to school they find a very hostile atmosphere created by the new head of the school, Mr. Howe, just brought in from Earth. He rules with an iron hand, imposing all kinds of new restrictions, and soon has Jim and Frank ready to mutiny. The last straw is when Howe takes Willis from Jim and locks him in his office. When the boys make a successful midnight raid to get Willis back, the bouncer’s recording ability reveals a plot by the company that will endanger their entire colony. Jim and Frank decide they have to sneak out and return home to tell their parents and everyone in Charax what’s happening, but they are soon on the run from the company’s police and in danger of dying in the frigid Martian night.
One of Heinlein’s best books for younger readers, this is full of great ideas, clever plotting, action and thrills, and like most of Heinlein’s books, memorable characters. The Martians in this book are the same as the ones in his adult novel “Stranger In A Strange Land,” and this book makes a good prelude to that one.