Sympathy for my Appliances

2009-September-30

Firstly, let me admit that I am a bit of a terrible person in that I tend to feel a fairly big amount of sympathy for things such as anthropomorphized appliances and trains. It’s why I love Thomas the Tank Engine so much, it’s why I love The Brave Little Toaster so much, and I think it’s part of why I tend to feel sympathetic for my computers when something goes wrong, or for computers belonging to students, especially when the students in question anthropomorphize the computers by referring to them as their baby or the poor thing.

I don’t even think of it as being that weird, at least I hope it’s not weird, I mainly think it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that when I’m using the things, it does feel like they have a personality. My main computer always has the strongest personality, and tends not to want to listen to my other computers. The oldest of my computers tend to be quiet, but are really very experienced and tend to know exactly what’s going on. Machines I’ve had the longest tend not only to have seen it all, but they’ve seen it all in exactly the way I want it to be done.

And I imagine that my computers and other computer or appliance-like apparatuses tend to communicate with each other, especially while I’m not physically present. The old ones tell the newer ones stories and give each other advice on survival, the new ones brag about more recent stories and developments from the outside world, and in a lot of cases, I imagine the oldest or least functional of them lament the potentiality of being tossed out.

It’s with that type of attitude that I recently read Thomas M. Disch’s The Brave Little Toaster, a short story upon which one of my favorite childhood video tapes was based. I don’t say “favorite tape” lightly either. It seems like every child has that tape that they watch all of the time. Once a week at a minimum, sometimes several times in a single day. Mine was the 1987 animated film The Brave Little Toaster. It was a great movie, wherein a group of abandoned appliances, bored of the tedium that has become their daily life, having been without their owner for a few years, decide to set out on an adventure to find him once again.

The book begins in almost exactly the same way, except for that the entire thing is much milder. I think this for several reasons. The first of which his that animation, as a very multimedia format, has the ability to much more quickly and succinctly express some of the very real and somewhat extreme emotion felt by some of the appliances, in addition to being very capable of expressing a few scenes that would have taken nearly forever to write in the original short story. The movie also has the distinct advantage of song, several of them in fact, all of which are really quite great.

In both the book and the movie, the appliances are very avoidant of having actual interaction with humans, for good reason as it seems it’s expressly forbidden, at least in the universe of the book. In the movie, the humans do show up and interact with the appliances (although they aren’t really cognicent of the fact that the appliances acknowledge and appreciate this interaction.) In the book, there is only one human, whose role is similar to that of one of the first humans the appliances encounter in the movie, except that there are a few changes to his circumstance, mainly things I think that would’ve been inappropriate for a late ‘80s animated children’s film.

In the book, this nameless antagonist is apparently incredibly evil, and lives at the city dump, bypassing all of the events surrounding the song It’s a B-Movie in the movie. In the movie version, this particular character is more opportune than evil, and more silly than ugly. Ultimately, the appliances meet different fates in the book than in the movie. Both have reached their 20-year anniversaries so I’m not going to feel guilty in saying this. In the book, the appliances are discovered at the city dump by their owner who is surprised but incredibly appreciative of their presence, after having tried to retrieve them from the cabin on his own. He proceeds to repair them all, quite lovingly, and take them to his college dormitory with him.

In the book, the appliances phone into a ‘70s radio equivalent of Craigslist and trade themselves off to a kindly older woman, in trade for some kittens, which their former owner and his quite-allergic girlfriend ultimately decide to keep, at the expense of her requiring more anti-histamines.

Both endings are ultimately serviceable, and I don’t know which I would say I prefer, since they both lead to quite some happy appliances. However the movie’s ending is at least enhanced in that some late ‘90s or early ‘00s sequels are possible. I bet the pitch was like this “What if a toaster, a vacuum, a radio, a lamp, and a heater blanket, on and this time a ceiling fan too, went into space with the help of a supercomputer, with the goal of saving a baby?” The studios would approve, but only if the prequel to the sequel goes something like this: “What if a toaster, a vacuum, a radio, a lamp and a heater blanket help rescue a supercomputer, save the Internet and save a bunch of wildlife preserve animals at the same time?”

With all of that, I’ve got to admit that while I appreciate the anthropomorphisation of things, I’m really quite pleased that my own computers, appliances et al are not mobile on their own. Imagine having to explain to your professor that your laptop, printer, television, camera and cell phone decided they’d like to tour the countryside.