Edward Zuckerman's book ''The Day After World War III'' could qualify as a disturbing piece of science fiction about a world gone incredibly wrong. Actually, the book is an extended journalistic expose (a portion was published last year in Esquire magazine) based primarily on the plans and statements of American officials. And what is disturbing about those plans and statements is that they suggest, according to Zuckerman, that the United States government's view of nuclear war is that it is both survivable and winnable.
''The Day After World War III'' is a provocative book. It comes at a time of enhanced public concern over nuclear issues. It also comes amid a proliferation of literature on the problems of nuclear war. But Zuckerman does not follow the lead of many of the other writers specializing in nuclear issues. He does not try to seduce his readers with diplomatically worded arguments about why nuclear war is morally wrong or unwinnable. ''The Day After World War III'' is not an essay as much as it is a piece of meticulously researched journalism.
The book takes readers on what is at times a bizarre tour of American civil defense and nuclear war planning.
An example: Zuckerman reports that in one government study, entitled ''The Impact of the Radioactive Environment Upon Traditional Chaplain Ministry,'' the US Army suggests that ''in ministering to radioactive casualties'' chaplains should ''wear gloves whenever possible, preferably rubber.''
But the book is more than just a collection of strange items culled by Zuckerman from hundreds of government civil defense studies and reports. It discusses and explains war scenarios, evacuation contingencies, and diplomatic strategy in the nuclear age.
The book works, in part, to get readers thinking about what has been described as ''the unthinkable'' - the fighting of a major nuclear war.
Extensive groundwork in the form of plans and contingencies for a nuclear war has already been laid. For instance, Zuckerman reports that in the event of nuclear war, the US Postal Service has been instructed to forward, free of charge, the first-class mail of those whose homes have been destroyed.
Zuckerman capsulizes the debate over civil defense efforts by reporting an exchange that took place during the 1982 congressional hearings between Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont and Gen. Louis Giuffrida, director of the federal agency responsible for US civil defense during a nuclear war.
''Have you ever seen the movie 'Dr. Strangelove'?'' asked the senator. ''As you work with these plans do you ever get a Strangelovian feeling at all?''
''I didn't think the movie was very good,'' said Giuffrida.
''I'm not surprised,'' said Leahy.