I am trying to remember the name of a book I read mid-to-late 1990s. I don't remember it being either a really small or massive paperback book. It was from a second hand shop (I think), so probably published late 1970s or early 1980s.

Things I remember about the book:

  • Humans were the universe's diplomats
  • We introduced the galaxy to red tape
  • There were aliens involved in the stories, normally asking us to help resolve some issue (one was around a long running war/dispute)
  • All looks/actions/emotions could be described using codes

The codes caused conversations between characters like:

"Did you just give me a XX103 (Mild Shock) look?"

"No it was a XX103a (Mild Shock with an understanding glance), why would I give you a XX103?"

The book was centered on a particular person who started off as a junior diplomat but was the one solving all the problems - often with indirect threats of (or direct application of) violence.

I thought it might be "Stainless Steel Rat" series, but it isn't, but I think it was around that era of publication.

  • Hi, welcome to SF&F! Nice question; do you happen to remember the cover of the book at all? You should check out the suggestions to see if they help you remember any additional details to edit in to your question.
    – DavidW
    Jun 26, 2019 at 21:23
  • So this is what inspired the Emoticons Unicode block...
    – jpmc26
    Jun 27, 2019 at 20:12

1 Answer 1


This sounds like the Retief series of books by Keith Laumer.

Jame Retief begins the series as a junior diplomat working for the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne (CDT). His boss is Ben Magnan, a stuffy, cowardly, paper-pusher who is usually aghast at Retief's more muscular approach to "diplomacy."

The usual antagonists were the Groaci, semi-insectoid creatures whose empire was the equal of, and invariably opposed to, the CDT. I remember it being noted on more than one occasion that the nose-flute was one of their cultural treasures.

The Wikipedia page linked above gives an example of the CDT catalogue of facial expressions:

"A most perceptive observation, Chester," Earlyworm said, bestowing a 24-w (Gracious Condescension) leavened with a hint of 7-y (Expectation of Great Things in Due Course) on the lucky bureaucrat, at which his fellow underlings around the table were quick to bombard him with approbation, ranging from Faintlady's 12.7-x (Knew You Had It In You, Fella) to Felix's more restrained 119-a (We're All Pulling For You, Lad), to which he responded with a shy 3-v (Modest Awareness of Virtue).

"In fact," Earlyworm interjected a Cold Return to Objectivity (91-s) into the lightning interplay of ritual grimacing ...

  • Wow ... quick answer and the right one :) The second I saw the name it rung a bell and the wikipedia page has almost the quote I remember. Cheers @DavidW Jun 26, 2019 at 21:29
  • Great answer! Really enjoyed those stories. Jun 26, 2019 at 21:41
  • Favorite quote was along the lines of "Too bad you can't tell the difference between that and Stunned Incredulity." Jun 27, 2019 at 22:09
  • 1
    Retief and the Warlords is hilarious and one of my favorite books of all time.
    – zeta-band
    Jun 27, 2019 at 22:34
  • @JohnR.Strohm Magnan leaned toward Retief. "I love watching him work," he murmured. "It only took him an instant to decide on Hearty Congratulation plus Alert Awareness of Irregularities, and just the teeniest bit of Latent Severity, all tied together with a touch of Gracious Condescension." "A great technician," Retief agreed. "Too bad you can't tell the result from Stunned Incredulity." I just found that yesterday re-reading Retief's War. :)
    – DavidW
    Jul 25, 2019 at 22:07

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