Thomas Disch’s most famous books—On the Wings of Song, 334, and Camp Concentration—are all works of literary speculative fiction. Possessing quality prose, classical references, and of course, a certain gravitas, they force The Brave Little Toaster (1980) to stick out like a tree in a field in Disch’s oeuvre. In the tradition of Stanislaw Lem’s Fables for Robots and Cyberiad, the novella tells the story of household appliances who go on a quest to find their lost master. At times playful and at others profound, the novella is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale of sci-fi proportions.
A vacuum cleaner, alarm clock, electric blanket (a yellow one), tensor lamp, and the titular toaster are living in a cottage in the countryside at the beginning of The Brave Little Toaster. The master away for more than 2 years, the appliances are starting to get antsy that he will never return. Concocting a plan to escape their confines and find him, the group soon finds themselves on the adventure of a lifetime—at least as far as appliances go. Encountering all manner of friends and foes, obstacles and rescues, Disch confirms it’s not the destination but the journey which matters.
The Brave Little Toaster is thus a lot of fun that can appeal to all ages. Disch not entirely abandoning his literary ways, the story is full of intelligent commentary and observations on life, but never takes itself so seriously as to get bogged down in any extended moralizing. Later learning it was addressing its own reflection, a daisy’s first encounter with the toaster in a meadow is brilliant:
“Charming flower, tell me, do, What genera and species you belong to. I, as may be seen at once, am just a daisy, green of leaf and white of petal. You are neither green nor white nor blue nor any color I have known. In what Eden have you grown? Sprang you from earth or sky above? In either case, accept my love.”
“Why, thank you,” the toaster replied, addressing the daisy that was pressing its petaled face close to the toaster’s gleaming chrome. “It’s kind of you to ask, but in fact I’m not a flower at all. I’m an electric toaster.”
Quaint dialogue written in flowing prose such as this eases the story along at a charming pace. Disch likewise investing imagination in the tale, the manner in which the appliances get about without electrical outlets is inventive, while their fear of rust and becoming obsolete will put a smile on the face. From the human perspective, the peculiarities of perception wrecked by the toaster’s reflective chrome façade are just as delightful.
In the end, The Brave Little Toaster is a fairy tale for appliances—and adults and children, also. Full of wit and charisma, Disch obviously had a lot of fun penning the five’s adventure through the ‘wilds’ outside their cottage home to find their master. Each with a delightfully different personality, it’s difficult for the reader not fall in love with the motley little crew. Ultimately the sci-fi version of Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey, there is likewise more than one hint of Stanislaw Lem’s fairy tales for robots, not to mention the story must certainly be one of the inspirations behind the Toy Story films.