The death of Zurich


Aficionados of the wonderful science fiction series Firefly will need no reminders about the backstory of the Reavers. As the crew of the Serenity journey through the badlands of space just at the edge of the authorities’ reach, they are reminded of the unspeakable horrors of the Reavers, creatures who are mere myths and legends to those lucky enough to live on safer planets. Deranged, once-human creatures, the Reavers are no fiction, however – hunting down human prey and committing unspeakable acts of barbarism against them.

The central premise of the follow-up film Serenity is that our heroes discover the origins of the Reavers. They lie in secret government experiments conducted on a planet called Miranda into behaviour modification. On this planet, scientists attempted to remove aggressive and violent streaks from people to create a calmer, more gentle society.

This is science fiction we’re talking about, so inevitably the experiments were a catastrophic failure. A tiny percentage of those subjected to the experiments reacted in the opposite way to that intended, becoming the mentally and morally deranged, violent creatures that we know of as Reavers. With the vast majority, however, the experiments worked too well – the people didn’t just become calmer and quieter, they slowed down, stopped caring, and simply gave up life.


The secrets of what happened on Miranda are uncovered by the crew of the Serenity, when they arrive on the planet and find a deathly silence. There is no noise, no action, and no people except the acquiescent dead who simply stopped where they were and ceased to live. Although devoid of threat now, there is a residual terror on Miranda, a shocking, upsetting image of what it would be like when you attempt to remove vibrancy, emotion and the most colourful qualities from human life.

This is rather how Zurich felt.

Effectively a lynchpin in our journey between the French and Austrian legs of our European overland trip, the largest city in Switzerland was our home for a few hours in between a TGV from Avignon that morning and sleeper train to Graz that night.

Instantly, I was struck by the silence on the streets, the sinister lack of noise. There were crowds, of course, many people going about their daily lives. But doing so in a curious silence, with only the occasional hiss and rattle of a passing tram to suggest that there were signs of life behind the blank faces and silent movements. I felt self-conscious speaking above a whisper, expecting people at any moment to tell us to hush, or to scowl disapprovingly at our rebellion against the automaton condition everyone else had adopted.

I am sure it is not just a Zurich thing, either. When we were in another Swiss city, Geneva, I was similarly struck by how quiet everyone was. And it wasn’t a peaceful atmosphere, either. Peace implies a contentedness, a fullness, a perfection. Zurich wasn’t peaceful; it was quiet. That’s something different, I think.

I don’t think it was the result of secret scientific experiments into behaviour modification. At least I hope not. Maybe it was emblematic of the country’s insularity and fierce, head-in-the-sand neutrality, or an effect of its vast wealth. Who knows.

Church and stepsIt was strange, because Zurich wasn’t an empty place. There were plenty people about, not least on the main streets. It was a clearly busy city, with a large centre boasting plentiful shops and restaurants, and a good tram network. And it was a very, very pretty place on top of all that.

With beautiful buildings, ornate churches, a lovely wide river, and cute little lanes off the main streets of the centre that led to brightly coloured buildings or curious shops and restaurants. If it also featured a bit of life about it (and some lower prices), Zurich would be an incredible place to be.

It’s just a shame that the people were so muted. Even any unorthodox behaviour seemed to struggle to fully escape the norm. On a tram ride, we sat near a youth who was quite clearly underage, but who was drinking a bottle of beer. Rather than being some sort of antisocial delinquent he was sitting quietly, reading a quality newspaper. When he’d finished his beer he silently got up and put the bottle in a bin.

At the next stop he got out. I saw through the window a homeless man – clearly so due to his big, straggly beard, unkempt coat and bag of trinkets. He did. however, sport an immaculately ironed shirt.

Zurich couldn’t even do underclass authentically. It could do rain, however, and the last couple of hours were a deluge. A clear sign to get out of town and head to the station for our sleeper train across the mountains and towards Austria. I’m glad it was only a day in Zurich. Who knows how long it would have been before the Reavers emerged to get us.

See my Zurich pictures here.

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