Rarely do I buy a book for its title alone, but the other day I was attracted by just such a lure. I had been feeling glum after considering some of the current literature on the possibilities of a nuclear holocaust. The twenty-first century looked forlorn and menacing - if indeed such a century would come at all to the civilization we know and to the planet on which we make our home. My eye happened to fall upon the notice of a book called 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future. That was just the antidote required, I thought, and, the book not being available at our local library, I ordered it through my bookstore. It came with the comforting speed of horse-and-buggy days, not at all as one might expect a book to travel which deals with the wonders of the space age.
Gerard K. O'Neill, its author, is a professor of physics at Princeton, who has been convinced for some years that the hope of mankind is the establishment of colonies in space. He has apparently persuaded the scientific community of the relevance of his research in this field, and he heads an institute concentrating on the various aspects of science, known and unknown, which can bring such an achievement to pass within a relatively near future. Obviously I am not capable of judging the evidence or testing the hypotheses upon which Professor O'Neill bases his case. I am afraid, moreover, that I am by nature and by long habitude too earthbound a creature to savor fully the delights he envisages. Nevertheless I must admit that in philosophical terms his approach to the future is beguiling.
The trouble with almost all current attempts to assess a safe and happy future for mankind is that they end up with some kind of a worldwide authoritarianism and a static society. From Plato to Huxley, utopians have seen the ideal social order as one running within rigid grooves. As the nuclear danger has become more manifest, and pollution and overpopulation have increasingly haunted even the most optimistic minds, some kind of centralized dictatorship has appeared the one sure remedy. It could be a benign dictatorship , of course, and even a very pleasing and orderly kind of control; but still man would share his diminished resources according to strict rules laid down from above.
The entrancing part of Professor O'Neill's vision is that it gets out of this dilemma, by picturing the human race as engaged upon new pursuits, with a new abundance of energy and of natural resources at its disposal. In settling space - occupying, as he likes to put it, ''the high frontier'' - men and women will live in a universe that is expanding, not contracting; they will find variety, initiative, independence, and freedom. It is not only that the space colonies will be decentralized and relatively small, holding the equivalent population of an old-fashioned town, nor that they will have gardens, shaded walkways, and as much sun and fair weather as seems agreeable. The important point is that they will be part of an ongoing adventure of the human race. Planet Earth, which has given men their natures and shaped their being, will remain like a fabled garden of Eden, still visited and cherished, but no longer the focus of troubles and dreams.
It is extraordinary that a reputable scientist should be able to talk about space colonies as within the reach of practicality and as attainable a hundred years from now. But Professor O'Neill is a serious man, and I like his quotation from the futurist, Arthur Clarke, to the effect that ''anything that is theoretically possible will be achieved in practice, no matter what the technical difficulties, if it is desired greatly enough.''
The intensity of our desire for space colonies is, of course, the crucial factor in any prognostication. Judged by the feeble resources at present devoted by the government to this field, our longings would seem to be bent toward other , more terrestrial, concerns. But there is a deeper question. Is man really prepared for so great a leap forward? Would he not want to put the advances of technology to other ends, more closely related to familiar scenes and fireside pleasures? The Greeks, perhaps wisely, used their early mastery of technology to create for themselves theat-rical effects and playthings. It is striking that aluminum, which a century ago was a pure element more rare and precious than platinum, should today have been put to making the wonderfully light tent posts for the shelter we were erecting the other day in nearby woods. Conceivably other computer-age marvels will be devoted to similar ends - to restoring the age of sail, for example, in a form suitable for transporting great cargoes.
Men, like the weather, are unpredictable; that is the one sure thing about them, and perhaps the best and noblest. Almost the only sure prediction is that men will somehow or other manage to survive, whether in space or on solid Earth.