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Ian Bank’s Culture Correct Reading Chronology

By / December 15, 2015 / no comments

It took me a while, reading Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, to realise that they aren’t written and published in chronological order. In fact there’s a period of more that 1,500 years between the earliest of the novels, Consider Phlebas, and the latest Surface Detail. But all of the books give us a clue as to when they are set, except for Inversions. And the chronological order is not the same as the order in which they were written, or the order in which they were published. So this is the correct chronological sequence of the books:

Macmillan U.K. HC (1987); Artist: Richard Hopkinson
Macmillan U.K. HC (1987); Artist: Richard Hopkinson

1: Consider Phlebas; the fourth book written and the first published. This is set during the Culture-Idiran War, which is the base from which all the other Culture novels are dated. An appendix tells us this lasted roughly from 1267-1367 AD. We don’t know exactly when during that conflict the events of the novel are set, but my own guess would be somewhere fairly early on. For the sake of argument, let’s say 1300 AD.

2: Excession; the fifth Culture novel. This, we are specifically told, occurs 500 years after the war, so roughly around 1867 AD.

state of the art
3: The State of the Art; the second written and third published. This concerns a Culture visit to Earth in 1977, so 610 years after the war.

4: Matter; the eighth Culture novel. This, we are told, is set  “a millennium of Eighth short-years” after the Idiran war. Since we discover elsewhere that a standard year is about one and a half short years, this means it is around 660 years after the  war, or 2027.

Banks - The Player of Games (2.1)
5: The Player of Games; the third written and second published. This is very specifically dated 716 years after the war, or about 2083.

use of weapons
6: Use of Weapons; the first written and fourth published of the novels. In The State of the Art we learn that Diziet Sma is writing her account 115 years later, and that the composition was interrupted by a mission that is, by implication, the events of Use of Weapons. Which means that the book is set about 2092, or 725 years after the war.

look to windward
7: Look to Windward, the seventh Culture novel. Events in the novel coincide with the 800th anniversary of one of the climactic battles of the war, which would place it around 2167.

hydrogen sonata
8: The Hydrogen Sonata, the tenth and last of the Culture novels is set 1,000 years after the war, so around 2367.

surface detail
9: Surface Detail, the ninth novel, is the most distant in terms of chronology at 1,500 years after the war, or roughly 2867.

I wonder if anyone has ever read the books in that order? Or, indeed, if doing so would make a difference?

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