'Before Tomorrowland': A deep-dive into the new alt-history novel by EW's Jeff Jensen
Einstein, Earhart, Gehrig, The World's Fair, Nazis, nuclear weapons, a self-loathing robot, and a geeky mother and son collide in this 'Tomorrowland' prequel set in 1939
It’s July 4, 1939. The World’s Fair is under way in New York, and so is the First World Science Fiction Convention, later known as WorldCon. An ailing Lou Gehrig is about to make his farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, and Albert Einstein is grappling with an ethical dilemma that could save the planet from a great evil — or possibly unleash something worse.
In the expanded mythology of Tomorrowland, which debuts in theaters May 22, this is also the weekend a teen boy and his sci-fi geek mother, who is fighting a fatal illness, visit the city and get drawn into Plus Ultra, a mysterious group that’s about to share its biggest secret with the world.
So begins the new novel Before Tomorrowland, which imagines the otherworldly utopia in its nascent stages — long before the events of the upcoming film. And it was dreamed up largely by someone longtime EW readers already know: our mythology codebreaker Jeff “Doc” Jensen.
The book is in stores now, and EW has a deep dive into what it has to say about the past, present, and future.
“It’s a distant prequel to the movie,” says Jensen, who co-wrote the book with artist Jonathan Case, his collaborator on the Eisner Award-winning non-fiction graphic novel Green River Killer. “You will not meet any characters from the movie in this story, but you will get to know in a pretty deep way the organization that’s responsible for Tomorrowland.”
There’s a whole 120-year history of the secret organization that built this futuristic realm, and one of Jensen’s duties on the film was to construct the backstory of this group of inventors, geniuses, and dreamers. It’s the foundation upon which Tomorrowland the place and Tomorrowland the movie rests.
“The city was the grand gesture of this organization,” says Jensen, who worked on the novel with major story input from director Brad Bird and screenwriter Damon Lindelof. “It wasn’t the goal of the group from the start, but over time it became the goal: A living laboratory where things are always changing and the best ideas are either given to the world or saved for a time when the world can handle it.”
But 1939, as the title of the novel states, is Before Tomorrowland. Nonetheless, its founders had existed for decades.
They were known as Plus Ultra, a term that has its own true-life history.
“It’s a riff off of the Latin phrase Non Plus Ultra,” Jensen says. “In antiquity, it was the warning the gods gave to man to stay away from certain regions of the world where monsters may dwell. I believe it translates as ‘nothing further beyond.’ It’s also a metaphor for hubris, and ‘Know your limits, mankind.’
The phrase has also come to mean the very best, as in “none better.” But the term’s meaning has evolved over the ages.
“In 16th century during the golden age of exploration, the Spanish adopted Non Plus Ultra, but tweaked it. They got rid of the Non and used Plus Ultra, ‘further beyond,’ as a defiance to that ancient order from the gods, and used it as a rallying cry to push the limits and explore,” Jensen says.
That served as the inspiration for Tomorrowland’s fictional braintrust.
“We loved the idea of Plus Ultra, that it would be adopted by a new era of exploration, but in a different regard, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility, and it would be adopted by the founding fathers of this organization: Jules Verne, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and Gustav Eiffel,” says Jensen. “They formed this society at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris where the Eiffel Tower was premiered.”
FALL FROM GRACE
But it’s not all peace, goodwill, and “Eureka!”
“Encoded in the term you have the fatal flaw of these people, too. They are Icarus or Daedalus,” Jensen says, referring to the Greek myth about father and son who build a pair of wax wings – which melt and send Icarus plummeting when he gets too close to the sun. “The history we conceived for Plus Ultra shows it’s ultimately a dysfunctional organization of huge egos. They develop a lot of stuff that is really cool for mankind, but sometimes they went way too far and damaged mankind or damaged the Earth.
“Their history was this constant cycle of pushing and dreaming and coming up with great things … and then folly and hubris and going too far,” Jensen says. “Then constantly regenerating itself over and over again like that.”
THE 1939 FLASHPOINT
In their fictional world, Tomorrowland didn’t begin construction until the 1950s, but in 1939, Plus Ultra was ready to begin revealing some of its other work to the people of Earth. While they created a backstory of more than a century, this particular date in the timeline served as the backbone of the new novel.
“They recognize that some of the technologies they’ve come up with are actually terrifying,” Jensen says. “But if they can broaden people’s imaginations about what’s possible, they’ll be less terrifying.”
There really was a World’s Fair happening in New York on July 4th of that year. And there really was Worldcon, a landmark science-fiction conventions. But Jensen also chose this time as a place for Plus Ultra to broaden its reach because it was the heart of the Great Depression – a time when imagining a better future was not particularly easy.
Not only that, but the world was building to a second world war … which leads the novel to another thing that really happened near New York at that time: Einstein was summering at a beach house on Long Island and under extreme pressure from his peers to urge President Franklin D. Roosevelt to begin work on a nuclear bomb.
“They’re all concerned about rising tide of Nazism,” Jensen says. “They feel America needs to get into that race and develop the bomb before Germany does. Einstein is Jewish, of course, and he’s very concerned about what Nazism represents, but he’s a pacifist and doesn’t want to build bombs.”
Before Tomorrowland imagines a significantly different history, however. “Einstein is also a key member of Plus Ultra,” Jensen says. “And Plus Ultra developed the atomic bomb way back in 1908. So they’ve been sitting on this for some time.”
What would be the nature of Einstein’s letter to FDR if the bomb already exists? In Before Tomorrowland, “the Manhattan Project wasn’t about developing an atomic bomb, it was about refining an atomic bomb. Plus Ultra used these huge bombs to blow holes in other dimensions, so the work of the Manhattan Project was not about creating a big bang – it was about creating a smaller bang.”
What they need to fight World War II is weapon that destroys only towns – instead of tearing apart the fabric of space and time.
Although you won’t meet George Clooney’s disgruntled inventor in Before Tomorrowland, or Britt Robertson’s teenage sleuth Casey from the movie, (neither was born yet) the novel mixes a number of real-life figures with its fictional heroes.
“Nikola Tesla is a huge character in this book. Howard Hughes. H.G. Wells, and Amelia Earhart,” Jensen says, adding with a laugh: “You’re going to say, Amelia Earhart, wasn’t she dead by 1939?’ And I’m going to say … read the book!”
These are mainly supporting players, while the two main characters in Before Tomorrowland are … well, pure inventions.
“The heroes are Clara and Lee Brackett. Clara is a late 30-something mom who is an aspiring artist and a science fiction fan, a total geek. She wants to draw paperback covers,” Jensen says. “And here’s were we get personal … She’s been dealing with brain cancer, and it’s very hard on the family.”
In real life, during his work on the Before Tomorrowland book and his story contributions to the movie, Jensen and his three children were caring for his wife, Amy, who was battling a similar disease. She passed away last June.
“Clara’s primary caregiver for the past several years is her teenage son, Lee,” Jensen says. “Dad is part of the family but he’s a traveling salesman and is never home. Lee is a jock, a really good baseball player but he had to give up a lot of that to take care of his mom. They have a good relationship, but Clara is quite a character. She won’t let this disease rule her life. But she’s a little kooky too, as most imaginative artistic types are. She doesn’t always know what’s best for her, but Lee knows what’s best for mom.”
Lee Brackett is also an homage to legendary screenwriter and sci-fi author Leigh Brackett, who wrote countless pulpy, fantastical stories and also co-wrote the movies The Big Sleep (credited with William Faulkner) and helped turn George Lucas’ ideas into The Empire Strikes Back.
It’s the Worldcon gathering that draws the mother and son to New York city. “She wants to drum up work for herself and show her portfolio to the editors there representing the various publishing houses,” Jensen says. “So she entices Lee to go with the promise of going to see Lou Gehrig’s farewell at Yankee Stadium.”
Once they make it to the Big Apple, the pair quickly find themselves drawn into Plus Ultra’s plans by way of a comic book that serves as a treasure map to one of their big revelations – but to find it, those following the trail have to prove themselves worthy.
A GRAPHIC NOVEL TREASURE MAP
What better way to acclimate the public to frightening scientific discoveries than to introduce them first as fiction? That’s the concept behind Plus Ultra’s specially designed comic book, which is included in the Before Tomorrowland novel and illustrates the “true” history of the group from 1889 to 1939.
In the story (not in the real-life book, sorry), the comic is accompanied by a pair of 3-D glasses. “The glasses don’t work on the comic, but they do work on the city,” Jensen says. “You look around you don’t see your city as it is, you see it as this awesome world of the future. They lead you on a trail and follow these breadcrumbs to …”
We won’t spoil that here, but suffice to say the journey isn’t quite that simple.
“Antagonism comes in the form of Nazis,” Jensen says. “There are always Nazis involved in these types of stories and we have a mad scientist named after the mad scientist in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Dr. Rotwang.”
MAN (AND WOMAN) vs. MACHINE
Rotwang used to be a member of Plus Ultra in the 1920s and early ‘30s, and he’s obsessed with eternal life. “He wanted to download his consciousness into an indestructible robot body and succeeded with a test subject — a young boy named Henry. He was a cub member of Plus Ultra, but was involved in a horrible accident,” Jensen says. “Rotwang took this boy as he was dying and downloaded his consciousness into this robot body. ‘Eureka! It works! It’s alive!’ But Henry promptly went crazy from this new reality and it took a lot for Rotwang to calm this guy down.”
Plus Ultra was horrified by the experiment and purged Dr. Rotwang from their ranks before he could delete Henry from the robot body and inhabit it himself. Ever since, he has been seeking sponsorship to complete his work – and he finds willing partners in the Nazis by way of Loman a fearsome German soldier who is also fixated on eternal life. Rotwang’s bargain: “Give me the resources to rebuilt my technology, I’ll build a body for you, too,” Jensen says.
But on the weekend of July 4th 1939, Henry escapes the not-so-good doctor. “Henry’s filled with vengeance toward Plus Ultra. He thinks Plus Ultra is all kinds of wrong. ‘I’m all kinds of wrong. I’m the epitome of Plus Ultra technology. If this is what they’re doing, making things like me — inhuman, robotic, monstrous — no thanks. I’m going to stop them at all costs.’ So he comes to New York on this weekend to bust up whatever plan Plus Ultra is trying to enact.”
Nazis are chasing Henry. Einstein is pondering his letter to the president. Worldcon’s science-fiction authors are about to set the course for their genre. The World’s Fair is opening a window to new possibilities. And a mother and son are wandering the streets of New York, about to cross paths with the future.
If it seems like we’ve given away a lot about Before Tomorrowland, don’t worry. This is just the beginning.