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I am looking for the name of a science fiction story or novel that I read 30 years ago.

It is a "space opera" about a lone human that travels some distance through a galaxy populated by various aliens. I thought it was by Harry Harrison, but I can't find anything in his work that fits.

I remember specifically that the main character is put to work as a slave separating functional equipment (light bulbs?) from faulty. He is supposed to use an intuitive process, and indeed he learns how to do this (encouraged by electric shocks). In the rest of the novel he consistently uses this trick to learn new skills intuitively, most notably machete-fighting.

The novel is typical for the there-is-something-special-about-humans approach to SF. I also remember him walking a tightrope, and an avian alien wondering aloud how he managed to do that "with those feet".

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I believe you're conflating two different Keith Laumer space operas. The bulb-sorting is from Laumer's Galactic Odyssey, identified in John Thompson's answer. However, the tightrope walking is from Earthblood by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown, which was also the answer to this question. Earthblood was originally published as a four-part serial in If, which is available at the Internet Archive ([1],[2],[3],[4]). In part 1 the hero, Roan, is caught using his wire-walking talent to sneak into the circus without paying. The being who interviews him is not an avian, but this must be the scene you're remembering:

The being behind the big, scarred, black-brown desk blinked large brown eyes at him from points eight inches apart in a head the size of a washtub mounted on a body like a hundred gallon bag of water. Immense hands with too many fingers reached for a box, extracted a thick brown cigar, peeled it carefully, thrust it into a gaping mouth that opened unexpectedly just above the brown eyes.

"Some kind of Terry, aren't you?" a bass voice said from somewhere near the floor.

Roan swallowed. "Terry stock," he said, trying to sound as though he were proud of it. "Genuine Terrestrial strain," he added.

The big head waggled. "I saw you on the wire. Never saw a Terry walk a wire like that before." The voice seemed to come from under the desk. Roan peered, caught a glimpse of coiled purplish tentacles. He looked up to catch a brown eye upon him; the other was rolled toward the gilled creature.

"You shouldn't have hurt Ithc." The wandering eye turned back to Roan. "Take off your tunic."

"Why?"

"I want to see what kind of wings you've got."

"I don't have any wings," Roan said, sounding as though he didn't care. "Terries don't have wings; not real original stock, anyway."

"Let's see your hands."

"He's holding them."

"Let him go, Ithc." The brown eyes looked at Roan's hands as he opened and closed them to get the blood going again.

"The feet," the basso voice said. Roan kicked off a shoe and put a foot up on the desk. He wriggled his toes, then put his foot back on the floor.

"You walked the wire with those feet?"

Roan didn't answer.

"What were you doing up there?"

"I was getting in without a ticket," Roan said. "I almost made it, too."

  • Wow, thanks! I've had this one/these ones on my mind for a long time. – Gil Hamilton May 16 '17 at 16:24
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You are describing Galactic Odyssey by Keith Laumer.

"Watch," Fsha-fsha said, and I followed through as he sorted them into six categories. Then I tried it, without much luck. "You have to key-in your response patterns," he said. "Tie this one . . ." he flipped his sorting key, " . . . to one of your learned circuits. And this one . . ." he coded another gob of wires, " . . . to another. . . ." I didn't really understand all that, but I tried making analogies to my subliminal distinctions among apparently identical glorm-bulbs—and it worked. After that, I sorted all kinds of things, and found that after a single run-through, I could pick them out unerringly. "You've trained a new section of your brain," Fsha-fsha said. "And it isn't just a Sorting line where this works; you can use it on any kind of categorical analysis."

He starts by wearing a harness that administers electric shocks to his finger tips. He goes on to utilize the process when fighting with a machete.

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