Monday, April 04, 2022

Cotton Xenomorph (Jan–Mar 2022)

Cotton Xenomorph: No Creeps, ed. Chloe N. Clark, Teo Mungaray & Hannah Cohen. Jan–March 2022. Online at

Reviewed by Jason Kahler

One of the advantages of an online literary journal is its accessibility. Assuming some level of stability, all the issues are there and easy to open. All the gleaming nuggets waiting to be unearthed. For a reviewer, however, that can be daunting. There’s just no way I could read the entirety of everything the excellent online journal Cotton Xenomorph has to offer, at least not in time to file an already overdue review. The sampling I did read, however, will motivate me to read the rest once this review is on its way to our editor.

The work in Cotton Xenomorph feels like it always hits right for the on-screen reading experience. I’m still old-fashioned and generally prefer to read analog, especially fiction, because it’s easier on the eyes and a book doesn’t have Twitter to distract me. But the editors and readers of CX are finding work that’s just my size and speed for work mediated through my computer. The journal claims to have no artistic aesthetic, though the pieces published in 2022 have some similarities. They each have a similar flavor: aethereal, beautiful but with menace, poetic but with narrative, rich with language and gribbly things.

These are not criticisms. The journal is very good. I’ve been reading a lot of Jeff VanderMeer lately, and some of the pieces in CX would be quite comfortable adjacent to his recent work. The work straddles science-fiction, fantasy, myth, and magical realism. The social media writing community leans heavily into the term “speculative fiction,” and while I bristle at assigning unnecessarily pretentious labels to things, it’s an apt label for what you’ll find in CX. These are worlds that could be—in fact, probably are—and that’s not always for the better.

Sometimes pretty things eat you.

Speaking of pretty, before I discuss some of the pieces individually, I’d like to take a moment to throw some shine on the website designer. Cotton Xenomorph is elegant. The site works wonderfully and really lets the work star. Many online journals struggle with usability and design choices. I don’t know much about design, and I can’t code, but I know when something is ugly and impossible to click through. CX is smooth, easy to read and navigate, classy and clean while still feeling decided. For someone like me, still resistant to the online journal experience, it’s almost enough to get me to trade in my bookshelves for a Kindle.

Monica Robinson’s “the forest is hungry too” is far richer than the sparse capitalization and punctuation her title employs. Of the work published in CX this year, Robinson comes closest to myth-making. What do the trees think, when we trample through their forests, leaving behind small pieces of ourselves as we go? As science begins to understand more that trees have a form of communication, our myths will expand to include their languages. We might not like what they have to say. Robinson writes, “Autumn has buried logic in its graves.” Haunting lines like this wait throughout Robinson’s hungry forest.

Robinson’s story considers what trees remember, and Soramimi Hanarejima’s “Bequest” takes up human memory in the near future where pharmacological wonders seem to work magic. While the editors have again selected a piece with language that makes you take notice, here the story takes centerstage. To talk more about the plot or structure of this piece would give away too much. It’s well-crafted, like a bee hive, nervous energy humming throughout the sweetness.

Andy Lopez explores craft and structure in her piece, “Mapmakers.” An entire world and its rich history spill out. Is this piece a story? Is it a poem? Does it matter what labels we assign? (Those labels, again; we can never be free of our urge to quantify.) “Mapmakers” is about revolution as much as the execution witnessed in the opening lines, about how actions lead to other actions, how determined voices can never be silenced for long. “Why do so many of us have hooks for hands” her narrator asks. We never know, not for sure, but we can guess. The guessing is always the best part.

In both “I Am the Spatula of Human Suffering” and “Thread,” the authors use domestic scenes to say more about the human condition and, specifically, the roles women play in the home and beyond. For Penny Sarmada, the simple spatula becomes a metaphor for all unassumingly important things. “I am your spatula,” she writes, “an item of utile necessity yet gentle disposition.” Don’t we all have kitchen accessories we take for granted? A favorite spoon. The morning cereal bowl. My glass. And how alike to these devices are the people without whom we couldn’t survive but who still don’t earn pride of place in our lives? The final lines in Sarmada’s piece are extraordinary.

In “Thread,” Lindz McLeod shares a family history (it’s impossible to tell how much of this history is true and how much is fiction). McLeod unpacks how busy women often are saving members of their families from themselves while protecting the others in case she fails. The mechanism the story’s great-grandmother uses feels familiar to me; I’ve seen it on TV and read about frontierwomen doing something similar. That makes me hope the story is true even more.

Of the pieces published this year in Cotton Xenomorph, “Baby’s First Eye Test” by Emma Brankin was my favorite. I thought it was most powerful, and best took advantage of the opportunities an online journal offers. As with the other pieces that appeared in the journal, I hesitate to say too much about Brankin’s hybrid fiction piece because I don’t want to steal the experience of discovery a reader might have by visiting the site. Go read it for yourself.

Everything that’s appeared in 2022 so far is fiction, but the journal does publish poetry, and again, the site is so user-friendly, it’s easy to track down the form that interests you or a title that catches your eye. Cotton Xenomorph may not completely win me over to the side of online journals, but it comes awfully close. It’s a great example of a journal that puts the reader experience first, with excellent curation of work prioritized a close second. It’s worth your clicks and your time.

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