Declaration-site and use-site variance explained

A common question posed by programming novices who have their first encounters with parametrized types (“generics” in Java and C#) is “Why can’t I use a List<Apple> as a List<Fruit>?” (given that Apple is a subclass of Fruit) Their reasoning usually goes like this: “An apple is a fruit, so a basket of apples is a fruit basket, right?”

Here’s another, similar, example:

Milk is a dairy product, but is a bottle of milk a dairy product bottle? Try putting a Cheddar cheese wheel into the milk bottle (without melting or shredding the cheese!). It’s obviously not that simple.

Let’s assume for a moment that it was possible to use a List<Apple> as a List<Fruit>. Then the following code would be legal, given that Orange is a subclass of Fruit as well:

List<Apple> apples = new ArrayList<>();
List<Fruit> fruits = apples;
fruits.add(new Orange());

// what's an orange doing here?!
Apple apple = apples.get(0);

This short code example demonstrates why it doesn’t make sense to treat a List<Apple> as a List<Fruit>. That’s why generic types in Java and C# don’t allow this kind of assignment by default. This behaviour is called invariance.

Variance of generic types

There are, however, other cases of generic types where assignments like this actually could make sense. For example, using an Iterable<Apple> as an Iterable<Fruit> is a reasonable wish. The opposite direction within the inheritance hierarchy of the type parameter is thinkable as well, e.g. using a Comparable<Fruit> as a Comparable<Apple>.

So what’s the difference between these generic types: List<T>, Iterable<T>, Comparable<T>? The difference is the “flow” direction of objects of type T in their interface:

  1. If a generic interface has only methods that return objects of type T, but don’t consume objects of type T, then assignment from a variable of Type<B> to a variable of Type<A> can make sense. This is called covariance. Examples are: Iterable<T>, Iterator<T>, Supplier<T>inheritance
  2. If a generic interface has only methods that consume objects of type T, but don’t return objects of type T, then assignment from a variable of Type<A> to a variable of Type<B> can make sense. This is called contravariance. Examples are: Comparable<T>, Consumer<T>
  3. If a generic interface has both methods that return and methods that consume objects of type T then it should be invariant. Examples are: List<T>, Set<T>

As mentioned before, neither Java nor C# allow covariance or contravariance for generic types by default. They’re invariant by default. But there are ways and means in both languages to achieve co- and contravariance.

Declaration-site variance

In C# you can use the in and out keywords on a type parameter to indicate variance:

interface IProducer<out T> // Covariant
    T produce();

interface IConsumer<in T> // Contravariant
    void consume(T t);

IProducer<B> producerOfB = /*...*/;
IProducer<A> producerOfA = producerOfB;  // now legal
// producerOfB = producerOfA;  // still illegal

IConsumer<A> consumerOfA = /*...*/;
IConsumer<B> consumerOfB = consumerOfA;  // now legal
// consumerOfA = consumerOfB;  // still illegal

This annotation style is called declaration-site variance, because the type parameter is annotated where the generic type is declared.

Use-site variance

In Java you can express co- and contravariance with wildcards like <? extends A> and <? super B>.

Producer<B> producerOfB = /*...*/;
Producer<? extends A> producerOfA = producerOfB; // legal
A a = producerOfA.produce();
// producerOfB = producerOfA; // still illegal

Consumer<A> consumerOfA = /*...*/;
Consumer<? super B> consumerOfB = consumerOfA; // legal
consumerOfB.consume(new B());
// consumerOfA = consumerOfB; // still illegal

This is called use-site variance, because the annotation is not placed where the type is declared, but where the type is used.


The variance behaviour of Java and C# arrays is different from the variance behaviour of their generics. Arrays are covariant, not invariant, even though a T[] has the same problem as a List<T> would have if it was covariant:

Apple[] apples = new Apple[10];
Fruit[] fruits = apples;
fruits[0] = new Orange();
Apple apple = apples[0];

Unfortunately, this code compiles in both languages. However, it throws an exception at runtime (ArrayStoreException or ArrayTypeMismatchException, respectively) in line 3.

Java Generics: the Klingonian Cast

Struck by Java generic’s odd type erasure behaviour again? You can circumvent the missing upcast feature by using the Klingonian Cast.


Ever since Generics were included in Java, they’ve been a great help and source of despair at once. One thing that most newcomers will stumble upon sooner or later is “Type Erasure” and its effects. You may read about it in the Java Tutorial and never quite understand it, until you encounter it in the wild (in your code) and it just laughs at your carefully crafted type system construct. This is the time when you venture into the deep end of the Java language specification and aren’t seen for days or weeks. And when you finally reappear, you are a broken man – or a strong warrior, even stronger than before, charged with the wisdom of the ancients.

The problem

If my introduction was too mystic for your taste – bear with me. The rest of this blog post is rather technical and bleak. It won’t go into the nitty-gritty details of Java generics or type erasure, but describe a real-world problem and one possible solution. The problem can be described by a few lines of code:

List<Integer> integers = new ArrayList<Integer>();
Iterable<Integer> iterable = integers;
Iterable<Number> numbers = integers; // Damn!

The last line won’t compile. Let’s examine it step by step:

  • We create a list of Integers
  • The list can be (up-)casted into an Iterable of Integers. Lists are/behave like Iterables.
  • But the list cannot be casted into an Iterable of Number, even though Integers are/behave like Numbers.

The compiler error message isn’t particularly helpful here:

Type mismatch: cannot convert from List<Integer> to Iterable<Number>

This is when we remember one thing about Java Generics: They aren’t exactly variant. While they have “use-site variance”, we are in need of “declaration-site variance” here, which Java Generics lack entirely. Don’t despair, this was all the theoretical discussion about the topic for today. If you want to know more, just ask in the comment section. Perhaps we can provide another blog post discussing just the theory.

The workaround

In short, our problem is that Java is unable to see the relationship between the types Integer and Number when given as generic parameter. But we can make it see:

List<Integer> integers = new ArrayList<Integer>();
List<Number> numberList = new ArrayList<Number>();
Iterable<Number> numbers = numberList;

This will compile and work. I’ve split the creation and filling of the second List into two steps to make more clear what’s happening: By explicitely creating a new collection and (up-)casting every element of the List alone, we can show the compiler that everything’s ok.

The Klingonian Cast

Well, if the compiler wants to see every element of our initial collection to be sure about upcasting, we should show him. But why create a new List and swap the elements by hand every time, when we can just use the “Klingonian Cast“? Ok, I’ve made the name up. But how else would you call a structure that’s essentially an upcast, but using two generic parameters and a dozen lines of code if not something very manly and bold. But enough mystery again, let’s look at the code:

List<Integer> integers = new ArrayList<Integer>();
Iterable<Number> numbers = MakeIterable.<Number>outOf(integers);

The good thing about the Klingonian cast is that it has a very thin footprint at runtime. Your hotspot compiler might even eliminate it completely. But you probably don’t want to hear about it characteristics, but see the implementation:

public class MakeIterable {
  public static <T> Iterable<T> outOf(final Iterable<? extends T> iterable) {
    return new Iterable<T>() {
      public Iterator<T> iterator() {
        return iteratorOutOf(iterable.iterator());

  protected static <T> Iterator<T> iteratorOutOf(final Iterator<? extends T> iterator) {
    return new Iterator<T>() {
      public boolean hasNext() {
        return iterator.hasNext();
      public T next() {
      public void remove() {

That’s it. A “simple” upcast for Java Generics, ready to use it for your own convenience. Enjoy!