The title of Helen Simpson's most recent collection of short stories carries a double meaning: the obvious one, the onboard menu of time-passers served up by long haul air carriers and, less obviously, it may well refer to the fact that we are in flight from dealing with global warming and the apocalypse it portends.
End of the world fiction is an acquired taste; writing it well enough to entertain while it scares the pants off the reader is no mean feat. Give Simpson, currently one of the very best short story writers writing in English, credit for trying. Several of the English reviewers of "In-Flight Entertainment" assert that she succeeded. E.g., Teddie Jamieson, for "Herald Scotland" said "Less furious polemic then, more peerless fiction."
Simpson's polemic voice is heard on the title story (jet travel impact on the environment) and in "Squirrel" (gardening practices), "Ahead of the Pack," (carbon footprint reduction), "Scan" (the problems caused by the air we breath and the water we drink), "The Tipping Point" (a lover's "apocalyptic zeitgeist" breaks up a romance), "Geography Boy" (more of the same), and "Diary of an Interesting Year" (2040, when we actually reach the end of the world).
Do the stories work as polemics? Yes. They make the reader acutely aware that we are at peril because of our wanton disregard for the health of the earth and by our "what can I do about it"? attitudes. But do these stories work as stories? No, not quite. For all the good writing, they tend to be tedious, repetitive, and they put us on the defensive.
So what's to like? A good deal actually. There are eight other stories. These are much closer to the high standard Simpson set and met in her earlier collections. ("Getting a Life," Knopf, 2001, is a great place to start if you are new to Simpson.) "The Festival of the Immortals" in the new book is a witty send up of the battlefield re-enactment lads set in the context of a weekend with actors playing many of England's greatest writers. Unfortunately for the ticket holders, the Daniel Defoe reading had to be cancelled. "Charm for a Friend with a Lump" makes the best of a bad thing happening to a good person. "In the Driver's Seat" makes all too clear what a woman whose choices have come down to one or none will put up with to avoid living alone.
"In-Flight Entertainment" may not be Simpson on her best day. But Simpson on a good day is better than most of today's short story writers at their peak.
End note. A sticker on the cover of the paperback edition of the book states "As Read on BBC Radio 4." An entry on the WWW states that the stories were "commissioned" for that purpose. That may account for the short length of some of the stories. Moreover, listening to an author read her stories often adds luster not to be found on the printed page. For a great example, hunt up the tape recording of Vladimir Nabokov reading from "Lolita." FYI, AmazonBritain can furnish the paperback.