Information comes at the speed of thought in the stories of Helen Simpson, who specializes in the utter absence of segue. The summoning associations are evident to the reader only in retrospect, if at all. But anxiety is like that: trepidations and realizations bubbling suddenly to the surface.
Fearless, funny writing shadowed with dread is the hallmark of “In-Flight Entertainment,’’ Simpson’s latest collection, which might have been subtitled “Something to Read as We Hurtle Toward Extinction.’’ The overriding thematic concern is climate change, a threat that, one gathers, Simpson believes we may be too late to remedy.
In the title story, set in the first-class cabin of a transatlantic flight, Alan is a businessman so odiously self-absorbed that even a fellow passenger’s cardiac arrest fails to rouse his decency. Trapped beside him in this hermetic milieu is Jeremy, a courtly retired scientist, who placidly explains to Alan that, yes, global warming is real, but humans are too willfully obtuse and devoted to their own immediate interests to do anything to stop it.
“I don’t care about you. You don’t care about me. We don’t care about him,’’ he says, indicating the stricken man. “We all know how to put ourselves first, and that’s what makes the world go round.’’
The hat trick Simpson scores here is to render characters who could have been straw men fully three-dimensional, make organic a debate that might have seemed ginned up, and - most astonishingly - shield the reader, with wryness and sharp observation, from feeling oppressed by the claustrophobic confinement of the setting.
Alan and Jeremy are the first of several duos to spar about climate change in “In-Flight Entertainment.’’ A British professor driving through Scotland in “The Tipping Point’’ nurses his heartbreak with memories of the German academic who dumped him, too guilty about the frequent air travel that sustained their romance to continue with it. The apocalyptic “Diary of an Interesting Year,’’ set in 2040, after what the narrator calls “the Collapse,’’ begins with a nod to dire warnings proved true: “G is really getting me down. He’s in his element. They should carve it on his tombstone - ‘I Was Right.’ ’’
And in “Geography Boy,’’ a young couple bicycling through France is at odds over the end of the world and what to do about it. In a rare misstep by Simpson, the conflict between Adele and Brendan feels forced, their opinions like position papers. Even so, the portrait of nascent love displays Simpson’s customary acuity, as when Adele considers the depth of her attachment: “She didn’t yet know if she had met her match. Sometimes she suspected not, and this made her feel like crying.’’
Lacerating comedy is Simpson’s weapon in “Ahead of the Pack,’’ a zippy monologue in which “a zeitgeisty sort of person’’ pitches a potential client for a personal carbon-coaching business that aims to reduce the planet’s “huge communal spare tire of greenhouse gases.’’ The theme can get wearying, even in such expert hands as Simpson’s. But the collection does pace itself; not all of the stories are consumed with it.
Menace lies just beneath the surface of a domestic tableau in the vivid, sketch-length “Squirrel.’’ In “Scan,’’ a young woman diagnosed with a tumor recognizes that time for her has changed, but has no idea how short it is. A hearing device is like a visiting ghost for a miserable Scrooge of a man in “Sorry?,’’ a story whose title has at least three meanings. In “Homework,’’ a mother concocts unsettling lies for her 13-year-old son.
Simpson deliciously skewers the preening arrogance of a successful 20-something who jettisons his girlfriend in “I’m Sorry but I’ll Have to Let You Go.’’ She has more lighthearted fun in “The Festival of the Immortals,’’ set at a literary fete showcasing authors like Charlotte Brontë and D.H. Lawrence. “Channel 17’’ is a pleasing trio of vignettes about love, accommodation, and betrayal.
Foreboding is never far away. But Simpson’s closing story, “Charm for a Friend With a Lump,’’ is also insistently hopeful, casting a spell in which “we are dreaming our way forward,’’ dreaming a healthy future in which we’ll still be here, together.
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes @globe.com.