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Through the Looking Glass by John Ringo

Cover art by Kurt Miller

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This novel was born in the wake of the disappointing sales figures on There Will Be Dragons, John Ringo's techno-fantasy of a world with technology so advanced it looks like magic. Jim Baen wanted him to get back to his near-future military science fiction roots and produce another slam-bang action novel. And yes, it starts with a bang. Quite literally.

One morning in March, an explosion destroyed much of central Orlando, Florida, obliterating tens of thousands of ordinary people going about their business, both legal and illegal. Given the times, the initial assumption was a terrorist attack, and the troops of the nearby National Guard post responded accordingly, alerting the National Command Authority (a President who is never named, but who is pretty clearly George W. Bush, who at the time the novel was written was the sitting POTUS). But even as the Commander in Chief is coming to grips with what appears to be a second Attack on America, anomalous evidence is coming in which contradicts the initial assumption that a terrorist lit off a nuke. There's no radiation, and no electromagnetic pulse. Nor were there the widespread atmospheric disruptions that would've been associated with a meteorite impact, the only natural explanation for the observed destruction.

And then a monster emerged. A thing looking like a giant red and black insect, but with too many legs. There's no question -- it's not from this world. And it's definitely hostile.

A little investigation revealed that the explosion was centered upon a physics laboratory on the campus of the University of Central Florida, a laboratory where Professor Ray Chen was carrying out high-energy physics experiments. Specifically, he was seeking the Higgs Boson, the mysterious "God Particle" that theoretical physics used to balance out some particularly esoteric equations which were intended to correlate General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics, bringing them into a Grand Unified Theory that had been the Holy Grail of theoretical physics since Einstein. Obviously, something went very, very wrong.

Which means that the President's usual military and political advisors are of very little use to him right now, so he needs someone who can advise him on the ramifications of really esoteric high-energy physics. That advisor proves to be Dr. William Weaver, who defies most people's expectations of science types by combining a first-rate technical mind with an athlete's body -- and a Southern drawl that can create the impression of a rather slow backwoods type if you don't pay attention. (A lot of readers have complained that this character is unbelievable, but according to the author's own word, Bill is based upon Dr. Travis S. Taylor, who was a behind-the-scenes collaborator on this novel and a credited collaborator on its sequels, as well as being the writer of several solo novels for Baen Books).

He sets forth to explain the nature of the Higgs Boson, including theories related to zero-point energy (which include a Men in Black in-joke for the alert) and the possibility that it can punch holes through the fabric of spacetime to create whole new universes. But the most important question is what threat this strange phenomenon floating over the ruins of Central Florida University poses to the national security of the United States.

For that question Bill Weaver doesn't have any answers, so he sets off to get them. Which means accompanying the troops straight into the area of devastation to see for himself what happened, so he can theorize on the basis of what he himself has seen and not second-hand reports. They haven't gone far before they encounter the impossible -- a little girl of six, who promptly recites her full name and address, clearly memorized for an emergency drill. She gives a child's-eye view of the disaster, confused but suggesting her mysterious alien companion Tuffy somehow saved her. A companion who refuses to be parted from her, to the point of attacking a sheriff's deputy who tries to forcibly remove him.

And then they reach the mysterious shining globe, which proves to be a gateway to a completely alien world. Even as they're making a brief exploratory visit, trying to determine how best to deal with the situation, and what kind of phenomena may be going on here, something becomes aware of them. Something that is most decidedly not friendly.

As if that weren't enough, then it becomes obvious that the gateway isn't the only one. In Lake County, a terrified retiree calls 911 to report that her husband has been attacked by demons and they're coming to get her. When the police are dispatched, their first thought upon seeing the mysterious shining mirrored surface hanging in space is a Hellmouth (when this novel was written, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was still running). But it soon becomes clear that this thing is not supernatural, but an unknown natural phenomenon related to the mysterious thing in the ruins that used to be Orlando, and the elderly woman's "demons" were in fact aliens.

Meanwhile, the military team that probed the first gate are running into trouble. They're getting attacked by creatures that are not only aggressive, but heavily armored. Somebody is out there running these creatures, and has deliberately sent stuff that human weapons will have serious difficulty dealing with. And more gates are showing up all over the place. One of them is extruding a mysterious entity that emits a field effect which deranges people's rational brain function, reminiscent of Cthulhu in the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

And one seems to be the source of potential allies. The cat people seem friendly enough, first to the elderly widow who finds one in her house and tries to sort things out by reading some random Heinlein from her late husband's science fiction collection, and then to the officials to whom she takes their emissary. But as Bill accompanies the felinoid to her homeworld, things don't seem to quite add up. They seem to be at an early-Victorian level of technology, still using coal-fired heaters and steam engines, yet they wield laser pistols and talk about transfer devices. They explain that away by saying they're getting the advanced technology in trade from another species, but are running out of trade goods and want to open trade with humanity in order to have new allies.

Remember the old saw about things that seem too good to be true? Pretty soon it becomes clear that the Mree, as the cat people call themselves, aren't all they present themselves to be. Yes, they're a proud warrior people -- but they're also a beaten people, trying to survive by handing over their own kind to their conquerors. And now they've been tasked with handing Earth over to the nasty bug critters with the unpronounceable name, which everybody takes to calling the Titchers, an approximation of their clicking vocalizations.

It's getting so bad that the President finally has to authorize nuclear strikes on the worst alien infestations. And then a new gate opens, and a new species of alien comes through. These Adar appear to be friendly, but after the betrayal of the Mree, Bill is going to be wary -- and of course we the readers will be too, especially considering how many science fiction readers (and writers) are particularly fond of kitties, and probably assumed that those cute little cat aliens just had to be real friends for us.

With everything becoming increasingly desperate, the ending wraps up in the grand old style of the early Ringo, with plenty of fireworks and grand heroics -- even if it is a physicist being the hero rather than Ringo's usual military types. And given this is quantum physics we're talking about, there's plenty of weird stuff as well, including an encounter with what may well be Heaven or God, or maybe the borderlands of Hell.

It ends satisfactorily enough that it could easily have been a stand-alone novel, but with plenty of threads left open for additional books if it sold well enough to become the first in a series. And as it has turned out, yes, it has become the first in yet another of the many series that John Ringo has been working on over the last several years, if not as rapidly as some of his fans would like.

Review posted December 10, 2011.

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