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Scala 3 — Book

Variance

Language

Type parameter variance controls the subtyping of parameterized types (like classes or traits).

To explain variance, let us assume the following type definitions:

trait Item { def productNumber: String }
trait Buyable extends Item { def price: Int }
trait Book extends Buyable { def isbn: String }

Let us also assume the following parameterized types:

// an example of an invariant type
trait Pipeline[T]:
  def process(t: T): T

// an example of an covariant type
trait Producer[+T]:
  def make: T

// an example of an contravariant type
trait Consumer[-T]:
  def take(t: T): Unit

In general there are three modes of variance:

  • invariant—the default, written like Pipeline[T]
  • covariant—annotated with a +, such as Producer[+T]
  • contravariant—annotated with a -, like in Consumer[-T]

We will now go into detail on what this annotation means and why we use it.

Invariant Types

By default, types like Pipeline are invariant in their type argument (T in this case). This means that types like Pipeline[Item], Pipeline[Buyable], and Pipeline[Item] are in no subtyping relationship to each other.

And rightfully so! Assume the following method that consumes two values of type Pipeline[Buyable], and passes its argument b to one of them, based on the price:

def oneOf(
  p1: Pipeline[Buyable],
  p2: Pipeline[Buyable],
  b: Buyable
): Buyable =
  val b1 = p1.process(b)
  val b2 = p2.process(b)
  if b1.price < b2.price then b1 else b2

Now, recall that we have the following subtyping relationship between our types:

Book <: Buyable <: Item

We cannot pass a Pipeline[Book] to the method oneOf because in its implementation, we call p1 and p2 with a value of type Buyable. A Pipeline[Book] expects a Book, which can potentially cause a runtime error.

We cannot pass a Pipeline[Item] because calling process on it only promises to return an Item; however, we are supposed to return a Buyable.

Why Invariant?

In fact, type Pipeline needs to be invariant since it uses its type parameter T both as an argument and as a return type. For the same reason, some types in the Scala collection library—like Array or Set—are also invariant.

Covariant Types

In contrast to Pipeline, which is invariant, the type Producer is marked as covariant by prefixing the type parameter with a +. This is valid, since the type parameter is only used in a return position.

Marking it as covariant means that we can pass (or return) a Producer[Book] where a Producer[Buyable] is expected. And in fact, this is sound: The type of Producer[Buyable].make only promises to return a Buyable. As a caller of make, we will be happy to also accept a Book, which is a subtype of Buyable—that is, it is at least a Buyable.

This is illustrated by the following example, where the function makeTwo expects a Producer[Buyable]:

def makeTwo(p: Producer[Buyable]): Int =
  p.make.price + p.make.price

It is perfectly fine to pass a producer for books:

val bookProducer: Producer[Book] = ???
makeTwo(bookProducer)

The call to price within makeTwo is still valid also for books.

Covariant Types for Immutable Containers

You will encounter covariant types a lot when dealing with immutable containers, like those that can be found in the standard library (such as List, Seq, Vector, etc.).

For example, List and Vector are approximately defined as:

class List[+A] ...
class Vector[+A] ...

This way, you can use a List[Book] where a List[Buyable] is expected. This also intuitively makes sense: If you are expecting a collection of things that can be bought, it should be fine to give you a collection of books. They have an additional ISBN method in our example, but you are free to ignore these additional capabilities.

Contravariant Types

In contrast to the type Producer, which is marked as covariant, the type Consumer is marked as contravariant by prefixing the type parameter with a -. This is valid, since the type parameter is only used in an argument position.

Marking it as contravariant means that we can pass (or return) a Producer[Item] where a Producer[Buyable] is expected. That is, we have the subtyping relationship Producer[Item] <: Producer[Buyable]. Remember, for type Consumer, it was the other way around, and we had Consumer[Buyable] <: Consumer[Item].

And in fact, this is sound: The type of Producer[Buyable].make only promises us to return a Buyable. As a caller of make, we will be happy to also accept a Book, which is a subtype of Buyable—that is, it is at least a Buyable.

Contravariant Types for Consumers

Contravariant types are much less common than covariant types. As in our example, you can think of them as “consumers.” The most important type that you might come across that is marked contravariant is the one of functions:

trait Function[-A, +B]:
  def apply(a: A): B

Its argument type A is marked as contravariant A—it consumes values of type A. In contrast, its result type B is marked as covariant—it produces values of type B.

Here are some examples that illustrate the subtyping relationships induced by variance annotations on functions:

val f: Function[Buyable, Buyable] = b => b

// OK to return a Buyable where a Item is expected
val g: Function[Buyable, Item] = f

// OK to provide a Book where a Buyable is expected
val h: Function[Book, Buyable] = g

Summary

In this section, we have encountered three different kinds of variance:

  • Producers are typically covariant, and mark their type parameter with +. This also holds for immutable collections.
  • Consumers are typically contravariant, and mark their type parameter with -.
  • Types that are both producers and consumers have to be invariant, and do not require any marking on their type parameter. Immutable collections like Array fall into this category.

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