Ted Turner, the entrepreneur who revolutionized television news-gathering with his Cable News Network, has now turned his sights to the literary world, where he hopes to do no less than create a whole new genre: Happy Lit.

So far, the response is underwhelming. The Turner Tomorrow Awards, which have been accepting manuscripts since Jan. 15, have only received about 300 entries. The organizers, however, say confidently they expect a flood to the tune of 10,000 to 15,000.

The lure is the top prize of $500,000, plus publication and attendant royalties. Four runners-up will get $50,000 each, also with publication and royalties. Any or all of the top five may be made into a movie, in which case the author gets -- no, not more money, but a screen credit.

Still, any winning author will bring home a lot of bacon. In a given year, only the likes of Stephen King and Tom Clancy do better.

What's the catch? It's right there in the rules: Works must be "set in the near future (1991-2021) with themes ensuring the survival and prosperity of all life on our planet. These awards are designed to encourage authors throughout the world and in all languages to search for and write about creative and positive solutions to global problems."

Thus, Ted Turner's agenda. Adds Turner Publishing chief Michael Reagan: "We know we have a greenhouse problem, pollution, toxic waste. Now we want to know, how can we begin a process of resolving some of this? All we're trying to do is create an atmosphere in which people can put forward an idea that might change the world."

His favorite example involves the movie "E.T." "Fifteen years ago," Reagan says, "every time someone talked about the idea of extraterrestrials, it was: 'I don't know if the person's real stable.' Then {Steven} Spielberg makes a movie about it. All of a sudden it's not such a farfetched idea. You can talk about extraterrestrials and not have people think you're crazy."

It's a debatable point whether this is true, but let it pass. One group that not only deals with extraterrestrials on a frequent basis but who knows the territory of this contest cold are the science fiction writers. You'd think they'd be buzzing.

Think again. Says Richard Curtis, a literary agent who represents about 80 sf writers: "I'm shocked at how unresponsive the writing community seems to have been, at least as measured by what appears on my desk aimed at the contest. Namely, zero ... A lot of science fiction writers think it's a joke."

Reagan confesses he once had a similar reaction. "When Ted first proposed it," he says carefully, "I looked at him like everyone else in the room." Even now that Reagan is gung-ho, he concedes it remains unusual. "We're certainly not going to make a lot of money on this. This is what makes working for Ted Turner interesting ... It's right out of his mind."

It's certainly easy to get tangled up in the contradictions of the contest. Who, you might wonder, has the skill to write a futuristic novel that would please a judging panel that includes big-time literary aces Peter Matthiessen and Wallace Stegner?

The obvious answer: another professional writer -- but as Curtis points out, any good writer tends to be under contract already. "You can't say to Bantam that 'I've decided to take the work I owe you and submit it to Ted Turner.' "

Moreover, most professional writers aren't fond of thematic constraints. As Curtis says, "The very idea of 'Thou shalt inspire' is a turnoff for many serious science fiction writers."

Kim Stanley Robinson, a Chevy Chase sf writer, takes a more benign view. Robinson would seem a natural for this contest. In fact, he has a utopian novel coming out this fall called "Pacific Edge" that would be a perfect competition entry -- if it hadn't already been committed.

"I like Turner's spirit," Robinson says. "It does seem to me that a lot of science fiction takes the easy way out and presents a dark future. For him to try to stimulate a whole bunch of books that look on the good side is a neat way for a millionaire to spend his money."

Silver Spring sf writer Charles Sheffield thought so, too, and wrote in seven weeks a novel he has submitted to the contest. "A book like this is in a sense a lottery ticket," he says. "But it's an expensive lottery ticket. I couldn't afford to spend a year on it."

In the beginning, his was going to be a utopian work, as per the contest rules. But Sheffield's artistic sensibility had other ideas. "The hero is born to a crack-addicted, alcoholic, chain-smoking mother, goes through all these troubles, and at the end of the book dies at 19. A pollyanna book is too unrealistic. There may be a happy future for the world but it won't come through any simple solution."

Reagan says there have been 22,000 requests for entry packages, including many from the Soviet Union, Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines. CNN helped a bit here, but according to Reagan the contest hasn't been heavily promoted on the boss's television operations.

"In the end," Reagan believes, "if someone writes a book like this, it's got to come from them. All we're creating is a reason to move it from the back burner to the front burner."

The reason, of course, is the $500,000, a sum sufficient to permit the prosperity and survival of the writer, if not necessarily the planet. But there's the possibility that the money may stay right in Turner's pocket. The competition reserves the right not to give any awards at all.

"The worst-case scenario," says a cheerful Reagan, "is that the judges will hate everything."

Contest guidelines are available from The Turner Tomorrow Awards, One CNN Center, Box 105366, Atlanta, Ga. 30348-5366.