When Stephen King’s story “Ur” was announced as an Amazon Kindle exclusive, the whole endeavor smacked of shady marketing. King is no stranger to marketing gimmicks – note the serialized Green Mile or the dual publication of Desperation and The Regulators – but never had he tied a work of fiction so intrinsically with a new product before. It was almost as if he’d written a story extolling the wonders of the iPod, complete with a coupon for a free iTunes download.
Of course, such skepticism is unfounded; the first portion of the story is titled, “Experimenting With New Technology,” something King has been doing since 1999’s “Riding the Bullet” was released directly to the internet (or maybe even farther back, if you think about The Mist being released as a radio play in 3-D sound back in the 80s). No, although the specificity of the product in question is a little unnerving, King releasing “Ur” exclusively for the Kindle is no different than his publication of The Plant on the internet. He’s simply experimenting with new technology.
As for the story: Wesley Smith and his girlfriend Ellen, both educators at an academically mediocre college in Kentucky, have had a falling-out over books. Ellen’s a jock and not much of a reader, and Wesley’s a literature professor with a first-edition copy of Deliverance. It is over this book that their fight is ostensibly about; Ellen hurls it at him, wondering why he can’t just read off the internet like everyone else. This is funny, interesting stuff ... but at first , oddly, it doesn’t grab you. “Ur” seems to have been written swiftly, and these first few scenes are a little patchy because of it.
However, once Wesley receives his Kindle – faster than he’d expected, and in a weird shade of pink – that swiftness works much in the story’s favor. Before long, “Ur” grabs you and drags you along its Twilight Zone trail. Wesley’s discovery of the Kindle’s bizarre capabilities is thrilling; without giving too much away, “Ur” recalls King’s previous novella The Breathing Method in all the best ways. Soon enough, Wesley delves even further into what the Kindle can do, and the stakes become personal. The question then becomes whether Wesley is prepared to do whatever it takes to save the woman he (probably) loves.
“Ur” is very good King. Over the course of this long short story (not quite a novella), he touches on some of his best tropes: the Big Picture versus personal gain (as in Desperation); the dangers of obsession (“Hearts in Atlantis,” Wizard and Glass); the unpredictability of rage (The Shining); and adult male friendships (Pet Sematary, Duma Key). He also writes about books, and that’s never a bad thing. “Ur” is a story in the same vein as “Chattery Teeth” or “Rainy Season” (although it’s better than both) – fascinating tales of weirdness and wonder that recall vintage Bradbury. (And maybe Orwell. Wesley Smith’s name can’t be a coincidence, especially in a story dealing so specifically with ubiquitous technology.)
Unfortunately, he also feels a need to connect the story with the larger tale of The Dark Tower ... which, honestly, is a little tiring. Much as novels like Dolores Claiborne, Cujo, and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon featured supernatural elements where they didn’t seem to need them, some of King’s more recent fiction has found itself all too often in the realm of the Tower. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Dark Tower stories; it’s just that “Ur” loses its individuality this way. “Ur” is a fascinating, engaging, terrific little story that doesn’t need the weight of the Dark Tower pushing down on it.
Despite this, “Ur” continues to demonstrate that while King may be famous for his long, epic novels, he does much of his best work in the short story form. Especially recently: with “Ur” coming so closely after the superlative collection Just Past Sunset, it’s clear that right now, King is at the top of his short story game.