Guy meets an old friend at conference. Old friend acts paranoid. Says he has discovered that an alien race is secretly acting to retard human progress. Their method: whenever someone is good at their job, they arrange to have that person promoted to management/administration. Later, the friend commits suicide.

I never read the mags, and I read this pre-Internet, probably in the 1970s, so almost certainly in a collection of short-stories. The suicide was by jumping from his apartment and/or hotel room, and the question at the end of the story was: does this mean the guys was nuts after all, or was he killed for uncovering the truth? The aliens are never seen, there was no action other than the dialogues between two friends. Can't remember how the dead guy came to his realisation.

  • 5
    Non-fiction is off-topic here.    :-)    ⁠ May 14 '16 at 0:45
  • It sounds familiar. I think it may be by Lem or the Strugatsky brothers, at least it had an Eastern-European feel IIRC. It's not really hard SF, more of a vague "somebody's screwing with us" story with no solid resolution.
    – Joe L.
    May 14 '16 at 5:34
  • @Otis: I just went through and green-ticked the lot. Just getting used to the i/face.
    – David Week
    May 15 '16 at 10:45
  • @David Week: Thank you!
    – Joe L.
    May 15 '16 at 17:20

It might be Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Definitely, Maybe. (TVTropes link)

from a review on this GoodReads page:

Here is the story of a group of scientists in various fields and at differing levels of accomplishment who begin to experience disruptions that prevent them from pursuing their work. The delivery of a case of vodka, the arrival of a woman, strange telephone calls, knocks on the door, a death; distractions abound and start to take on an ominous note against progress. Furtive gatherings commence. Is it more important to determine the agent/agency operating against them, or to figure out how to continue working under such conditions? Are they losing their minds along with their careers? What is to be done?

And if worse comes to worst, there is always sweet surrender to this hostile but imposing power, noble retreat before an enemy worthy of victory, and then - reasonable docility. Don't bug your eyes out at me, Dmitri. I said this was all subconscious. And do you think you're the only one? It's a very, very human trait. We've rejected God, but we still can't stand on our own two feet without some myth-crutch to hold us up. But we'll have to. We'll have to learn. Because in your situation, not only do you not have any friends, you are so alone that you don't have any enemies, either! That's what you refuse to understand. (chapter 8)

Here's the neighbor's suicide:

Their investigation revealed that all the lamps in the apartment were on, that an open, packed suitcase stood on the bed, and that Snegovoi was at his desk in his study, holding the phone in one hand and a Makarov pistol in the other. It was determined that Snegovoi had died of a bullet wound to the right temple fired at point-blank range from that gun. Death was instantaneous and took place between three and four a.m. (chapter 3)

Promotions are one of the many "distractions" keeping scientists from their work:

Weingarten was semiofficially informed that there was a plan afoot to name [him] as director of the newest, supermodern biological center then under construction in Dobroliubov. This information made Comrade Weingarten’s head spin, but he nevertheless realized that the directorship was, first of all, just a bird in the bush, and if and when it became a bird in the hand it would, secondly, get [him] out of creative lab work for at least a year and a half, maybe two. (chapter 5)

And here's the aliens (who may not actually be aliens but a manisfestation of something... else)

    The day before yesterday, just as Weingarten started to work, that redhead showed up at the apartment—a short, coppery fellow with a very pale face, encased in a buttoned-up black coat of ancient cut and style. He came out of the children’s room and, while Val just gaped at him in silence, sat on the edge of the desk and started talking. Without any preamble he announced that a certain extraterrestrial civilization had been watching him, V. A. Weingarten, for quite some time, following his scientific work with attention and anxiety. That the latest work of the aforementioned Weingarten was making them very anxious. That he, the redhead, was empowered to ask V. A. Weingarten to immediately drop the project and destroy all his papers relating to it.
    There is absolutely no need for you to know why and wherefore we demand this, the red-haired man said. You should be told that we have tried other means, to make it seem completely natural. You should not be under the impression that the offered directorship, the new project, the discovery of the coins, or even the vacation incident in the labs were in any way purely accidental. We tried to stop you. However, since we were only able to hold you up, and not for long, we were forced to embark on an extreme measure, such as my visit to you. You should also know that all the offers made to you were and are valid and that you may still take them up if our demands are met. And, in case you do agree, we are willing to help satisfy your petty, and completely understandable, desires that arise from your human nature. As a token of the promise, allow me to give you this small gift.
    And with those words, the redhead pulled a package out of thin air and tossed it on the desk in front of Weingarten. It turned out to contain marvelous stamps, whose value could not even be imagined by someone who was not a professional philatelist.
    Weingarten, continued the red-haired man, should in no way think that he was the only earthling being watched by the supercivilization. There were at least three people among Weingarten’s friends whose work was about to be nipped in the bud. He, the redhead, could name such names as Dmitri Alekseevich Malianov, astronomer; Zakhar Zakharovich Gubar, engineer; and Arnold Pavlovich Snegovoi, physicist. They were giving V. A. Weingarten three days, starting right now, to think it over, after which the supercivilization would feel that it had the right to employ the rather harsh “measures of the third degree.” (chapter 5)

  • That's the one, @joe. Many thanks!
    – David Week
    May 14 '16 at 22:41
  • @David Week: My pleasure. Don't forget to click on the green checkmark to officially mark the answer as "accepted".
    – Joe L.
    May 15 '16 at 1:28

This sounds a lot like "The Person from Porlock" by Raymond F. Jones, originally published in 1947.

Not much about this one on the web, but Wikipedia does have a brief mention of it in the article on the poem that inspired it:

"The Person from Porlock" is a science fiction story by Raymond F. Jones published in Astounding magazine in 1947, in which Coleridge's vision is explained as the remote viewing of a secret colony of aliens living on Earth. One of the aliens deliberately distracts Coleridge before he can write down a full description of the colony.

The full story is available (via a scanned copy of the issue of Astounding in which it was included) at archive.org, starting on page 96. Here's a passage from the big reveal that might stimulate your memory:

"I did not come," said Spence, "but my ancestors did. They had no intention of visiting Earth. An accident destroyed their vessel and made landing here necessary. The members of the expedition were scientists and technicians, but their skill was not the kind to rebuild the ship that had brought them across space, nor were the proper materials then available on Earth."


"But why have you interfered with me? Why don't you make yourselves known and offer your advanced science to the world?"

"Surely you are sufficiently familiar with the reaction of your own people to the new and the unknown to make that last question unnecessary. We aren't concerned with advancing your science. It is progressing rapidly enough, too rapidly for your social relationships, which would benefit by some of the energy you expend on mechanical inquiries."

There are some significant differences from your description, so this may not be the story. Key differences:

  • Those advancing science too quickly are not always promoted (though this apparently sometimes happens, as pointed out by user14111 in a comment below), but are sometimes recruited to the aliens' organization, where they take up the job of being the resident expert in discrediting research within their specialty.
  • The protagonist is the one who makes the discovery, when his own research is discredited; he later discovers that the friend who panned his research was already working for the aliens.
  • Rather than committing suicide at the end, he joins the alien organization himself.
  • @user14111, thanks for the detail -- I missed that when I was skimming through for matches. Also thanks for the improvements to my answer.
    – Otis
    May 14 '16 at 0:37
  • Thanks @otis. Not the story I remember… thanks for showing me "The Person from Porlock". I've done another google search and still can't find any clues. This one's hard to figure out good search terms for.
    – David Week
    May 14 '16 at 1:22
  • @DavidWeek, too bad that's not your story! Are there any other details you can remember that you can add to your description? Like what year you read it, whether it was in a collection or a magazine, the kind of conference the characters were attending, what the aliens looked like, where they were from, how the paranoid friend came to his conclusions, how he killed himself, etc... even seemingly trivial items can sometimes make the difference. See scifi.stackexchange.com/tags/story-identification/info for suggestions about good things to add.
    – Otis
    May 14 '16 at 1:55
  • @otis I never read the mags, and this was pre-Internet, probably in the 1970s, so almost certainly in a collection of short-stories. The suicide was by jumping from his apartment and/or hotel room, and the question at the end of the story was: does this mean the guys was nuts after all, or was he killed for uncovering the truth? The aliens are never seen, there was no action other than the dialogues between two friends. Can't remember how the dead guy came to his realisation. Hope that helps… because this is a mind worm that's been gnawing at my brain for years.
    – David Week
    May 14 '16 at 5:14
  • @DavidWeek, I've taken the liberty of adding the above information to your original post. Please feel free to make any additional adjustments/improvements/expansions directly there, as fewer people read through the comments than read through the question itself. Good luck, and welcome to the site!
    – Otis
    May 14 '16 at 5:48

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