I’ve heard that Thomas M. Disch has written a lot of really good books for adults and a lot of high quality poetry. Of course, what he is best known for now seems to be the Brave Little Toaster stories. These strange books, The Brave Little Toaster and The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars, seem to be children’s books on the surface. I say seems to be because despite the format and subject matter, The Brave Little Toaster was originally published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, to an adult audience. This seems unintentional; Disch said that he had trouble selling the story as a children’s book because publishers found the concept too far-fetched, even after he sold the film rights to Disney. Still, The Brave Little Toaster did quite well as a F&SF novella with its mostly adult audience. It was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and won the Locus Award, Seiun Award, and British SF Association Award. Despite being a children’s fable, the themes and social commentary of this story have appealed to adults for decades. Though I found the sequel, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars, to feel a lot more like a children’s book.
It may seem strange that these little books about toasters, which were originally written in the 80s, are still talked about today. As far as I can tell both books are long out of print. I was lucky enough to find a second hand copy of Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars for under $100, but to read the original Brave Little Toaster, I ended up finding a copy of the anthology; The Best From FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, The 24th Series, edited by Edward L. Ferman. Along with Brave Little Toaster, this anthology also contains this story along with stories by Philip K. Dick, Lisa Tuttle and articles by Isaac Asimov and Algis Budrys.My copy is super beat up, as I imagine most copies are, but this book is a lot easier to find online for a reasonable price than Brave Little Toaster.
What ended up immortalizing these books were the movies based off of them. The Toaster movie trilogy is itself rather hard to find nowadays (though I heard some countries have the movies on Disney+) but they have a cult following. I watched the three movies (the first and third are based off of the books, but the second, Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue is completely original) a lot as a kid. Probably why I have issues throwing things away. The plot of the first movie is about a group of small appliances – an electric blanket, radio, vacuum cleaner, lamp and of course a toaster – are abandoned in a cottage, and go on a journey to find their master and be useful again. It is a cute premise that gets very dark, and the movie. The book and movie have very different endings, which in turn means that the book and movie versions of Goes to Mars are different. I wasn’t as obsessed with Goes to Mars as a kid, so I’m not going to go into as much detail about that movie.
Even if you didn’t watch The Brave Little Toaster as a kid there is still an interesting history behind the movie. It was the first CGI film John Lasseter (of Pixar fame) ever pitched, though after he failed to convince the Disney President that using computers would be ‘faster or cheaper’, he was fired. Keep in mind that years later, Lasseter would go on to make Toy Story, the first completely CGI film, which like Toaster, is about inanimate objects coming to life. Though Toy Story came about mostly due to Disney’s interest in Lasseter and Pixar’s short film Tin Toy, it is hard to imagine that The Brave Little Toaster did not provide some influence.
Lasseter is not the only connection between Pixar and Brave Little Toaster. The film attracted a lot of talent both new and old, including people who would go on to work for Pixar. Most notability, this was screenwriter Joe Ranft’s first movie. Ranft would go on to become Pixar’s Head of Story, and write for a number of Pixar movies, including Toy Story. He unfortunately passed away whilst working as co-director of the movie Cars. The connection between Brave Little Toaster and Pixar can be seen on the door of the Master’s apartment, which contains an early example of the A113 Easter egg that that alumni of the California Institute of the Arts hide in movies – especially Pixar movies. Whilst Brave Little Toaster was a big part of my childhood, Pixar have been a lifelong influence on me. There was a time in my life where I was planning to be an animator. It was quite interesting learning about this connection. I find it crazy to think that in an alternate universe somewhere, Lasseter’s pitch succeeded and The Brave Little Toaster could have been the first entirely computer animated feature film. Instead, it is a largely forgotten cult classic.
With the film and Pixar history out of the way, I should start talking about the books themselves. The plot of The Brave Little Toaster is that a group of appliances that have been left in a cottage go out into the wilderness in search of their human, who they call the Master. Along the way they meet flowers that speak in verse, squirrels that tell dirty jokes, and a pirate that steals and disassembles appliances. So far, pretty similar to the movie. Each appliance in the odd five-man band gets its own moment to shine, and they all have distinct personalities. However, in the book the confrontation with the junkshop owner is the climax. After that, they go to the Master’s apartment, but end up getting a very different welcome by the newer appliances to what we saw in the movie. As I said before, this leads to a different ending. Still a happy ending, but not a painless ending.
This novella/children’s book is full of charm. The appliances all have appliance concerns and thoughts as they go on this adventure. The Toaster thinks a lot about toasting bread, and its goals involve a lot of breakfasts. Its pretty cute. At the same time, the appliances all have issues with having a purpose. They want to be useful, to the point where sitting idle in the cottage is unbearable to them. Being in a junkyard, being damaged, all brings out fears that they are junk and worthless. Its interesting how Disch puts us in the head of an appliance in a way that starts out cute but speaks to very human needs about self-worth and purpose. This also ties into the moral of the story, which is how wasteful society is. We throw out things instead of doing minor repairs. Being a kids book, this moral isn’t subtle at all, but it isn’t out of place or annoying.
In The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars, the Toaster and friends end up going to Mars. Shocking right? Given how differently the first book and movie ended, there are some differences. Most notably, no baby in a magic bubble floating through space in the book. For the most part though, the story is the same. Albert Einstein’s old hearing aid helps the radio pick up a signal from Mars, from which the appliances learn that there are appliances on Mars who want to invade Earth and kill all the humans. So, a mission to Mars is planned. Using an unpublished anti-gravity theory of Einstein’s, the hearing aid is able to get a crew of appliances to Mars in a clothes basket, using a single pack of macaroni and cheese as fuel. The Toaster, Radio and Blanket are back for this adventure. The Hoover stays home because it predicts that it will have a terrible time on a planet completely covered in dust. The Lamp stays home because its worried it’ll be too dark on Mars. Yeah, the Lamp is super dumb. The rest of the crew consists of the genius Hearing Aid, the Ceiling Fan, the Calculator, and the Microwave. They are also joined by a balloon that they meet in orbit.
As you can see, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars is completely crazy. Even without the space bubble baby. It also has a lot of the same charm as the original. The Toaster is still obsessed with toasting bread. When it gets stressed it thinks about making toast to calm down, and when it thinks about English muffins it feels uneasy due to an incident where it burnt one in the past. Unfortunately, we don’t get similar moments inside other appliances heads as often as we did in the first book. The only other appliance we get similar insights to is the light-up Christmas Tree angel Tinselina. She thinks about Christmas a lot. There are so many novelty Christmas angels on Mars that they have Christmas once a month. Tinselina is head of the union, and has demanded that the Supreme Commander – who is a fridge the size of a pyramid – let them have Christmas so often. It would have been nice to see a bit more characterization for the other new appliances. The Microwave and Toaster had a slight rivalry at the start, but by the time they go to Mars that is forgotten, and the Microwave is pretty much just there to heat up the mac’n’cheese. The ceiling fan is also there pretty much just to translate when the Hearing Aid speaks in German. It’s pretty much just the Toaster’s story, with all the other appliances of the crew just there to make the plot work.
The ending also felt way too easy. But then again, I am an adult and this is a children’s book. I guess what I’m really saying, is that this story doesn’t have quite as universal appeal as the first book. It is a very simplistic story, with some very simple language. Which again, it is for kids. Though on the other hand the social commentary doesn’t seem quite as practical for a younger audience. Planned Obsolescence is explained and treated as the horror it is, and there are also stabs made at senseless consumerism and militarism. Some of the appliances being made on Mars are completely pointless, and as the Toaster points out during the hours long military parade, there is no need for a pyramid-sized fridge or giant war toasters.
In the end, I am glad I read both books, even though I by far prefer The Brave Little Toaster. These are fun children’s books with an interesting history. They also managed to pack in a lot of charm whilst saying things about consumerism and instilling just a bit of existential dread. If you are lucky enough to have a copy of these books, treasure them.