Is there a preferred order to the novels (publication? internal timeline? other?)
The graphical timeline posted previously has been great, though it has sadly gotten outdated. So, I've modified/updated it to include the newer books (credit goes to the original creator of the graphical timeline, though I don't know exactly who that is):
As for the reading order, there are a lot of opinions out there... even an interview with the author still didn't conclude on an exact reading order (see: https://theskinner.blogspot.com/2020/04/where-do-i-start.html ). But after much discussing the matter with other Asher readers, it has become apparent that the publishing order is basically the way to go. The main reason for this is that Asher has a tendency to drop potential spoilers if you read the books in chronological order. The only way to avoid getting hit by a spoiler bomb is to basically go with the publish date order. Now, I say "basically" since Asher has written many of the standalone books before finishing some of the series... and he has also written some series at the same time, back and forth. So, the reading order below reflects the best place to read the series and standalone books while trying to keep as close to the publication order as possible:
- Cormac series (5 books) --- # books 1 and 2 may not be Asher's best... and some have said Gridlinked didn't explain some terms as well as it should have (though others didn't seem to have any noticeable troubles). We just have to be forgiving of Asher here since these were his first few books and he was still getting his writing style honed. Regardless, just hang in there as #3 (Brass Man) is noted by many as very good! And books 4 & 5 have even higher reviews!
- The Spatterjay series (3 books) --- # Even though the Transformation series chronologically comes after the Cormac series, the Spatterjay series was alternatingly written/published during the same time as the Cormac series. Again, I'm siding with the published order types here, since they feel staying with the author's writing style as he develops it is the better choice. Even though some say you can read the Spatterjay series at any time, since it is set much further in the future and is a bit more removed from earlier events... those of the "stick with the published order" mind still recommend reading this series at this point (i.e. after the Cormac series).
- Prador Moon (standalone) --- # chronologically the first book, it introduces us to the Prador, the Polity, and some of the tech and terms used therein. Some feel this book should be read first, to introduce you into the Polity universe along with its tech and terms, since starting with Gridlinked has had some people feel that many terms used, like "runcibles", were not explained well. Others feel this book should be read closer to its publication order (basically, after the Cormac and Spatterjay series... and before Hilldiggers). At first I sided with those that recommended to read this book first, to get you more familiar with terms, but it has come to my attention that there are references to events in it during the Spatterjay series and reading Prador Moon after the Spatterjay series will give you a much better sense of completion and appreciation that you won't get if you read it earlier. So, I'm moving it here.
- Hilldiggers (standalone) --- # Basically, it is set in the Polity but outside the Polity's borders and is not related to the other Polity stories, except for a few references to give it a time frame. Put here due to its publication order.
- Shadow of the Scorpion (standalone) --- # It is basically a prequel to the Cormac series and even though it comes chronologically after Prador Moon, the basic consensus is that it should be read AFTER both the Cormac and Spatterjay series. Some have regretted reading it too soon and wished they'd read it near the end of everything. It was published after the last Cormac series book and before the last Spatterjay book... and well before the Transformation and Rise of the Jain series, so this should be the right point to read this book. Put here due to its publication order.
- The Gabble: And Other Stories (standalone) --- # a collection of short stories. The short story "Alien Archaeology" is a prequel to the novel "The Technician". The Gabble was also published before "The Technician" as well, hence why I'm putting it here.
- The Technician (standalone) --- # to be read after the Cormac series. It's reviewed very high as well. Put here due to its publication order.
- Transformation series (3 books) --- # "This is one continuous story that builds directly on The Technician and Cormac books." --nessie7 at Reddit.com. There was a publishing gap of about 4-1/2 years between The Technician and the Transformation series. The series is also set about 250 years after the Cormac series and The Technician.
- Rise of the Jain series (3 books) --- # chronologically, starts shortly after the events of the Transformation series. Published soon after the Transformation series as well.
- Lockdown Tales (standalone) --- # six stories collection. It explores "the latter days of the Polity universe and beyond." Put here due to its publish date.
- Jack Four (standalone) --- # a human clone, destined to be sold to the Prador, starts running amuck. Put here due to its publish date.
Besides all the above, there is a couple other books to consider that were published before any of the previous works (the first published of the above was the Cormac series book #1: Gridlinked (2001)):
- "The Engineer Reconditioned" (2006) --- # collection of short stories and is a reprint of "The Engineer" (1998) with three additional stories.
- "Runcible Tales" (1999) --- # a set of non-canon short stories.
This is one hell of a series. The Cormac books must be read first starting with Gridlinked. then drop back to start at the beginning of the timeline - the gabble can be read at the end as it references all the books and characters in the whole timeline. The Skinner is quite basic in the technologies Neal invented as he went through the writing process but the action sure makes up for that. Enjoy. Also try Peter F Hamilton's books if you like this series - though much more techfest than splatterpunk
Having read Gridlinked, I think that it is the one to start with for his Cormac novels, which also takes place in the polity universe. Amazon also says it is "Ian Cormac Book 1".