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How important is it to have read prior Culture novels to be able to fully understand what's going on if I start with this one? Thanks

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Thaddeus Rex Not at all important. This is the first Culture Book I read, and was completely enchanted. Perhaps I missed a few references more experienced Culture aficionados noticed, but I perceived no lack of perfection. The book is incredible and stood by itself quite nicely.
Eldon By this point in the Culture novels, a basic understanding of the Culture mindset is somewhat necessary to understand the subtleties of the characters, particularly the ship Minds.

Also, (VERY tiny spoiler alert) the very last sentence of the book will not make any sense if you have not read several of the previous books. It will not reduce the enjoyment of the book at all, but for those readers who have read them consecutively, that last sentence is a fantastic "ah HA!" moment.
Ash I would say its not essential but it does add to the experience, for example it refers a fair bit to the Idiran war (which happened around the time of the first Culture novel) and it refers to lots of other Culture lore, though to be fair it does explain a lot of it too.

But the story and characters aren't directly related to any other novel in particular, so you should be good.
Brian I recommend "The Player of Games" as the best introduction to Banks' Culture universe, and also possibly the best novel in the series. After that, you can read anything else in any order.
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