A month ago, I wrote an open letter to the late Sir Arthur C Clarke, titled ‘Living in the Global Glass House’. It was inspired by the WikiLeaks cablegate controversy, which heralded a new level of transparency in international relations triggered by a disruptive technology – something Sir Arthur had predicted decades ago.

I researched the essay over a few days in early December 2010. While following the unfolding cablegate saga with much interest, I looked up and re-read many published articles and speeches of Sir Arthur related to the social and political impacts of new communications technologies. I was already familiar with his thinking on the subject, but was still amazed to discover the extent of his prescience. And dismayed by how little his timeless advice was being followed.

My essay was first published on 19 December 2010 by Groundviews.org; it has since been reproduced widely, and my own compact versions have appeared in a number of print media outlets. Just ask Google.

In the intervening weeks, WikiLeaks and its public face Julian Assange have kept us enthralled. Last week saw political unrest boil over in Tunisia that eventually forced its long-ruling autocratic President Ben Ali to flee the country. Foreign Policy called it the ‘first WikiLeaks Revolution’.

The influential journal noted: “Tunisians didn’t need any more reasons to protest when they took to the streets these past weeks — food prices were rising, corruption was rampant, and unemployment was staggering. But we might also count Tunisia as the first time that WikiLeaks pushed people over the brink.”

As I watched Tunis erupt on satellite TV, I recalled a brief visit to that city five years ago to attend the World Summit on the Information Society (phase 2). It was an unlikely place to talk about the rise of information and communications technologies: the locals were kept at bay, and their access to the Internet was tightly controlled. There is some irony that WikiLeaks should trigger long overdue political reform in such a society…

If you thought that was explosive, consider this. The UK’s Observer newspaper reported on 16 January 2011 that the Swiss whistleblower Rudolf Elmer plans to hand over offshore banking secrets of the rich and famous to WikiLeaks. Elmer is a former chief operating officer in the Cayman Islands and employee of the Julius Baer bank, which accuses him of stealing the information.

The Observer, sister newspaper of the UK Guardian — one of five mainstream media outlets working with WikiLeaks — reported: “The offshore bank account details of 2,000 ‘high net worth individuals’ and corporations – detailing massive potential tax evasion – will be handed over to the WikiLeaks organisation in London tomorrow by the most important and boldest whistleblower in Swiss banking history, Rudolf Elmer, two days before he goes on trial in his native Switzerland.”

It added: “British and American individuals and companies are among the offshore clients whose details will be contained on CDs presented to WikiLeaks at the Frontline Club in London.”

Those involved include, Elmer has told the Observer, “approximately 40 politicians”.

Hmm, that should be an interesting list. When it gets published, that would be another reminder – if any more were needed – that we are well and truly living in the Global Glass House. In this WikiLeakable world, Swiss bankers will soon have to some up with a different sales pitch: how can anyone, anywhere guarantee complete secrecy and confidentiality anymore?

While waiting, here’s something to brood over. Once again, Arthur C Clarke got there at least a generation ahead of the rest of us.

“When the Twerms Came” is one of the less known short stories by the doyen of science fiction. Julian Assange was not even born when Sir Arthur churned out this cheeky little story in 1970.

As author later remarked, the 360-word tale was intended as an Invasion-of-Earth story to end all Invasion-of-Earth stories. While it didn’t succeed in this laudable objective, the editors of Playboy loved it – and used it as the basis for a psychedelic comic strip illustrated by the American underground cartoonist Skip Williamson.

“I can still recall the anxiety with which the editors nervously revealed the layout to me,” Sir Arthur wrote in his 1978 collection, The View from Serendip.  “They were so relieved when I laughed.”

The comic strip was published in the Playboy issue for May 1972, with the top cover blurb promoting it: “Arthur C Clarke teams up with underground artist Skip Williamson”. I’ve just spent a few interesting minutes trying to locate it online (all in the name of scholarly research, of course!). But our usually reliable friend Google can’t help with this one: it’s either behind a pay-wall, or lies somewhere with little or no indexing by search engines.

If anyone can find the actual comic strip, that would be an interesting piece of pop culture to place online for free public viewing — even if it might elicit some protests from the House of Hefner.

The short story itself has been remarkably obscure. It was included in The View from Serendip, where all the rest was non-fiction essays, and added to his short story collection The Wind from the Sun (1987 edition). But, for some reason, it is not in the Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke (Tor Books, New York. 2000), which brought together (almost) all the short stories in one large volume of nearly one thousand pages. (Conspiracy theories welcome on why the story was missing.)

In the wake of recent developments, the story deserves better recognition and wider circulation. So here it is, 40 years after it was written (reproduced with the kind courtesy of the Arthur C Clarke Estate).

When the Twerms Came

By Arthur C Clarke

We now know (little consolation though this provides) that the Twerms were fleeing their hereditary enemies the Mucoids when they first detected Earth on their far-ranging Omphalmoscopes. Thereafter, they reacted with astonishing speed and cunning.

In a few weeks of radio-monitoring, they accumulated billions of words of electroprint from the satellite Newspad services. Miraculous linguists, they swiftly mastered the main terrestrial languages; more than that, they analysed our culture, our technology, our political-economic systems – our defences. Their keen intellects, goaded by desperation, took only months to identify our weak points, and to devise a diabolically effective plan of campaign.

They knew that the US and the USSR possessed between them almost a teraton of warheads. The fifteen other nuclear powers might only muster a few score gigatons, and limited delivery systems, but even this modest contribution could be embarrassing to an invader. It was therefore essential that the assault should be swift, totally unexpected, and absolutely overwhelming. Perhaps they did consider a direct attack on the Pentagon, the Red Fort, the Kremlin and the other centres of military power. If so, they soon dismissed such naïve concepts.

With a subtlety which, after the event, we can now ruefully appreciate, they selected our most compact, and most vulnerable area of sensitivity…

Their insultingly miniscule fleet attacked at 4 AM European time on a wet Sunday morning. The weapons they employed were the irresistible Psychedelic Ray, the Itching Beam (which turned staid burghers into instant nudists), the dreaded Diarrhoea Bomb, and the debilitating Tumescent Aerosol Spray. The total human casualties were thirty-six, mostly through exhaustion or heart failure.

Their main force (three ships) attacked Zurich. One vessel each sufficed for Geneva, Basle and Berne. They also sent what appears to have been a small tugboat to deal with Vaduz.

No armourplate could resist their laser-equipped robots. The scanning cameras they carried in their ventral palps could record a billion bits of information a second. Before breakfast time, they knew the owners of every numbered bank account in Switzerland.

Thereafter, apart from the dispatch of several thousand special delivery letters by first post Monday morning, the conquest of Earth was complete.

Post script: Politicians, generals and bankers should really start looking up the nearly 100 books and around 1,000 short stories and essays that the late author and futurist left behind. Who knows what other cautions and history lessons are lurking there?


Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene worked with Sir Arthur Clarke for 21 years as a research assistant, and has a strange fascination for alien invasions of our planet. He blogs on media, society and development issues at http://movingimages.wordpress.com