Usually I prefer novels to short stories, but there are a few short stories that mean something to me, and have hung out in my head for years. There is only one hardcover short story collection on my bookshelves, and I bought it for one story, considering everything else a free bonus. This is my favorite short story ever, and has influenced my writing greatly.
"The Coming of Vertumnus" by Ian Watson is truly awesome. It's about the dissolution of the ego and conscious mind, perhaps to become part of something greater, or perhaps not. He starts by putting us inside the head of art critic Jill Donaldson, who is not so annoying that we wish to tune out her first person narration, but whose self centered irony and cynicism introduce an element of pleasure for the reader into the fearsome and fascinating things to follow.
The old painting described in the opening of the story seems only meant to give us a pleasurable image while introducing us to the narrator's book and career, but deeper levels of symbolism are introduced as the story goes on, which itself sets a pattern of symbolism and unexpected yet inevitable double meanings. Jill Donaldson herself becomes the tiny nude figure held by the sculptor in the painting.
For a short story such as this, anything past the first few pages might be considered a spoiler, and I don't want to give away too much. The author has researched Titian and the Hapsburg dynasty, and unless you've studied them yourself, you won't know where fact blends into fiction. This helps us get into the protagonist's head, since all the conspiracy theories feel real and possible while under the spell of the story.
If (like me) you are not an art aficionado, visualize one of Archimboldo's painting as described. Various fruits and vegetables are used to form a three dimensional human shape in a painting. Now imagine a future ecological movement using this image as a symbol. Now an oil billionaire who claims to be concerned about the excesses of the environmental movement has immitative pornographic paintings forged, which pretend to be by the same artist. These could destabilize some environmental groups. Now an exhibition of the paintings is bombed. Who did it, environmentalists, or those whose avowed intent is to discredit them?
The protagonist is kidnapped and drugged by people claiming to represent the Hapsburg dynasty. 'Ringbinders' will be in her brain for a long time, and neither she not the reader can take her perceptions at face value from then on. She's hallucinating things, unless of course she's become able to perceive realities that others cannot yet see.
Ultimately this story is not about a fictional world, or even a possible future, but who and what we are now. It's also a wild ride, to read for fun while having your brain twisted.