I've always had a hard time explaining variance of generic types while working with type annotations in Python. This is an attempt to distill the things I've picked up on type variance while going through PEP-483.

A pinch of type theory

A generic type is a class or interface that is parameterized over types. Variance refers to how subtyping between the generic types relates to subtyping between their parameters' types.

Note

Throughout this text, the notation T2 <: T1 denotes T2 is a subtype of T1. A subtype always lives in the pointy end.

If T2 <: T1, then a generic type constructor GenType will be—

  • Covariant, if GenType[T2] <: GenType[T1] for all such T1 and T2.
  • Contravariant, if GenType[T1] <: GenType[T2] for all such T1 and T2.
  • Invariant, if neither of the above is true.

To better understand this definition, let's make an analogy with ordinary functions. Assume that we have:

# src.py
from __future__ import annotations


def cov(x: float) -> float:
    return 2 * x


def contra(x: float) -> float:
    return -x


def inv(x: float) -> float:
    return x * x

If x1 < x2, then always cov(x1) < cov(x2), and contra(x2) < contra(x1), while nothing could be said about inv. Replacing < with <:, and functions with generic type constructors, we get examples of covariant, contravariant, and invariant behavior.

A few practical examples

Immutable generic types are usually type covariant

For example:

  • Union behaves covariantly in all its arguments. That means: if T2 <: T1, then Union[T2] <: Union[T1] for all such T1 and T2.

  • FrozenSet[T] is also covariant. Let's consider int and float in place of T. First, int <: float. Second, a set of values of FrozenSet[int] is clearly a subset of values of FrozenSet[float]. Therefore, FrozenSet[int] <: FrozenSet[float].

Mutable generic types are usually type invariant

For example:

  • list[T] is invariant. Although a set of values of list[int] is a subset of values of list[float], only an int could be appended to a list[int]. Therefore, list[int] is not a subtype of list[float].

The callable generic type is covariant in return type but contravariant in the arguments

  • Callable[[], int] <: Callable[[], float] .
  • If Manager <: Employee then Callable[[], Manager] <: Callable[[], Employee].

However, for two callable types that differ only in the type of one argument, the subtype relationship for the callable types goes in the opposite direction as for the argument types. Examples:

  • Callable[[float], None] <: Callable[[int], None], where int <: float.

  • Callable[[Employee], None] <: Callable[[Manager], None], where Manager <: Employee.

I found this odd at first. However, this actually makes sense. If a function can calculate the salary for a Manager, it should also be able to calculate the salary of an Employee.

Examples

Covariance

# src.py
from __future__ import annotations

# In <Python 3.9, import this from the 'typing' module.
from collections.abc import Sequence


class Animal:
    pass


class Dog(Animal):
    pass


def action(animals: Sequence[Animal]) -> None:
    pass


if __name__ == "__main__":
    action((Animal(),))  # ok
    action((Dog(),))  # ok

Here, Dog <: Animal and notice how Mypy doesn't raise an error when a tuple of Dog instance is passed into the action function that expects a sequence of Animal instances. However, if you make change the action function as follows:

...


def action(animals: Sequence[Dog]) -> None:
    pass


if __name__ == "__main__":
    action((Animal(),))  # not ok
    action((Dog(),))  # ok

Mypy will complain about this snippet since now, action expects a sequence of Dog instance or a subtype of it. A sequence of Animal is not a subtype of a sequence of Dog. Hence, the error.

Contravariance

The Callable generic type is covariant in return type. Here's how you can test it:

from __future__ import annotations

# In <Python 3.9, import this from the 'typing' module.
from collections.abc import Callable


def factory(func: Callable[..., float]) -> Callable[..., float]:
    return func


def foo() -> int:
    return 42


def bar() -> float:
    return 42


if __name__ == "__main__":
    factory(foo)  # ok
    factory(bar)  # ok

Here, int <: float and the in the return type, you can see Callable[..., int] <: Callable[float] as Mypy is satisfied when either foo or bar is passed into the factory callable.

On the other hand, the Callable generic type is contravariant in the argument type. Here's how you can test it:

from __future__ import annotations

# In <Python 3.9, import this from the 'typing' module.
from collections.abc import Callable


def factory(func: Callable[[float], None]) -> Callable[[float], None]:
    return func


def foo(number: int) -> None:
    pass


def bar(number: float) -> None:
    pass


if __name__ == "__main__":
    factory(foo)  # not ok
    factory(bar)  # ok

Here, Mypy will complain in the case of factory(foo) as the factory function expects Callable[[float]], None] or its subtype. However, in the above case, Callable[[float]], None] <: Callable[[int], None] but not the other way around. That causes the error.

Invariance

In general, types defined with the TypeVar construct are invariant. You can mark them as covariant or contravariant as well. However—

Remember that variance is a property of the generic types; not their parameter types.

Here's how you can mark types as covariant, contravariant, or invariant:

from __future__ import annotations

from typing import Generic, TypeVar


T = TypeVar("T")
T_co = TypeVar("T_co", covariant=True)
T_contra = TypeVar("T_contra", contravariant=True)


class HolderInv(Generic[T]):
    def __init__(self, *args: T) -> None:
        self.args = args


class HolderCov(Generic[T_co]):
    def __init__(self, *args: T_co) -> None:
        self.args = args


class HolderContra(Generic[T_contra]):
    def __init__(self, *args: T_contra) -> None:
        self.args = args


def process_holder_inv(holder: HolderInv[float]) -> None:
    pass


def process_holder_cov(holder: HolderCov[float]) -> None:
    pass


def process_holder_contra(holder: HolderContra[float]) -> None:
    pass


if __name__ == "__main__":
    holder_inv = HolderInv(1.0)  # ok
    holder_cov = HolderCov(1, 2)  # ok
    holder_contra = HolderContra(
        1, 2
    )  # raises error because T is contravariant

    process_holder_inv(holder_inv)
    process_holder_cov(holder_cov)
    process_holder_contra(holder_contra)

References


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