The index promises a discussion of such cheery topics as "radiation sickness," "starvation," "Kafka, Franz," "death, Dostoevsky on" and "despair--see also futility." And the book delivers on every promise.

Who would have thought such a dense tome would be offered as a special bargain by the Book-of-the-Month Club, touted as an event by Time magazine, entered into the Congressional Record more than once (by more than one anxious legislator), extolled on the "CBS Evening News" and "The Merv Griffin Show," endorsed by Walter Cronkite, and denounced on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times?

It has been called "the new Bible of our time, the White Paper of our age" (by Helen Caldicott, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility) and it has been called "gibble gabble" (by novelist/columnist George V. Higgins, writing in The Boston Globe). Whatever it is, Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of the Earth" has people talking.

Everybody except Jonathan Schell, that is. Explaining that his book ought to speak for itself, the 38-year-old Schell, author of "The Village of Ben Suc" and a series of powerful New Yorker magazine editorials against the Vietnam war, has forsworn the talk-show and book-signing circuits, declined to pose for a book-jacket photo, and refused to make any public comment about either the book itself or the vitriolic controversy it has inspired.

"He's talking about the fate of the world and yet he doesn't want to talk to the world," says one mildly bewildered acquaintance.

"The Fate of the Earth" is a grim treatment--equal parts journalism, philosophy and summons to action--of the possible demise of the human species in a nuclear war. Schell argues that any use of the bomb could lead to our extinction, that extinction is something humanity has no right to gamble on (citing a range of authorities from Socrates to biologist Lewis Thomas), that deterrence is an internally contradictory and unreliable protection against war, and that traditional world politics must be "reinvented" to deal with this transcendent problem.

The book first appeared in three February issues of The New Yorker--a brilliant piece of timing that, by all accounts, was coincidental. Guided by New Yorker editor William Shawn, Schell had spent five years working on his articles, never imagining that they would emerge on the crest of a sudden wave of concern over the arms race, and not even showing his manuscript to Alfred A. Knopf, his publishers, until shortly before the first New Yorker installment came out.

That first installment hit the newsstands Jan. 28. A few days later, a retired minister in Greenwich, Conn., sent a letter to his fellow Greenwich clergy urging them to read Schell's piece. Similar calls were soon sounded in newspaper columns, editorials and letters to the editor all across the country, and the Charleston, W. Va., Gazette actually ran a series of 14 editorials summarizing Schell's series. Then, on "Face the Nation," former vice president Walter Mondale called the articles "historic," while "CBS Evening News" commentator Bill Moyers wondered aloud what would happen if Ronald Reagan and Leonid Brezhnev read Schell's work to each other (through interpreters) at the summit. With a comparable sense of urgency, Eliot Fremont-Smith, writing in The Village Voice, called on Knopf to cancel the rest of its spring list in deference to the importance of Schell's book.

Knopf has failed to take that advice (and Reagan and Brezhnev have indicated no enthusiasm for Moyers' suggestion either). But according to editor-in-chief Robert Gottlieb, the book's lower-than-average price ($11.95), large first printing (50,000 copies, plus another 50,000 said to be in the pipeline) and rush-job schedule (two months from receipt of the final New Yorker installment to availability in bookstores) reflect a commitment that transcends the commercial.

"My main interest is that the world not nuke itself," says Gottlieb, "not that we sell a lot of copies."

The Book-of-the-Month Club has made an even more dramatic gesture of civic-mindedness--by offering "The Fate of the Earth" at $2.25 a copy to its 1.2 million members, with Schell agreeing to take "a very tiny royalty." Gloria Norris, the club's editor-in-chief, says she was on the lookout for a book about nuclear war, "but they all tended to be grim and statistical." Schell, on the other hand, "takes you from the very beginning--understanding fission and fusion--through the horrible visceral details of what would actually happen in a holocaust, and he writes about that more graphically and compellingly than anyone I've read. And then he advances on to the philosophical issues.

"So I and other members of my staff felt it was such an unusual book that we really felt we should do something unusual with it--and we have."

But Norris' enthusiasm is not universally shared. Harper's editor Michael Kinsley calls the book "one of the most pretentious things I've ever read." Schell's modes of persuasion, Kinsley writes, are "bullying" and "hothouse reasoning: huge and exotic blossoms of ratiocination that could grow only in an environment protected from the slightest chill of common sense."

Ridiculing a lengthy discourse on the possible "uncreation" of future humans ("While we can launch a first strike against them," writes Schell, "they have no forces with which to retaliate"), Kinsley comments jocularly: "Well, my goodness. Do we really have a moral obligation not to deny birth to everyone who, with a bit of help, might enjoy the 'opportunity to be glad they were born instead of having been prenatally severed from existence by us'? I shudder to think how I've failed. For that matter, I shudder for Jonathan Schell--for every moment he's spent banging away at the typewriter, instead of banging away elsewhere."

Schell anticipated one criticism, writing that disarmament "is all but ruled out of consideration as 'utopian' or 'extreme'--as though it were 'radical' merely to want to go on living and to want one's descendants to be born . . . " Disarmament may be impossible within the present nation-state structure of the world, Schell acknowledged, but that being the case, humanity faces a choice between "extinction" and "global political revolution."

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among others, have refused to accept this choice. "Having confirmed, at numbing length, that nukes are dangerous," The Times editorialized, Schell "airily departs for higher ground . . . But the rest of us are left in the real world, stuck with the only available alternative to catastrophe. Deterrence it will have to be."

The Journal, in the course of a harsh editorial against the nuclear freeze campaign, lumped Schell with those who practice "emotional blackmail." "Mr. Schell is pathetically short on suggestions," declared the editorial. " 'In sum,' he concludes, 'the task is nothing less than to reinvent politics.'

"Like, wow, man," was The Journal's response.

But The Village Voice's Fremont-Smith thinks the attacks are partly the product of "a charming, chic cynicism about the whole thing." "Any idea anyone comes up with is shot down as being impractical," he says. "Then there's the whole anger at The New Yorker, the exclusive clubbiness of it, the nonexistent deadlines . . . I think a lot of stuff is operating here."