Non-C++ languages for generative programming?

let me list a few important details about how metaprogramming works in lisp (or scheme, or slate, or pick your favorite "dynamic" language):

  • when doing metaprogramming in lisp you don't have to deal with two languages. the meta level code is written in the same language as the object level code it generates. metaprogramming is not limited to two levels, and it's easier on the brain, too.
  • in lisp you have the compiler available at runtime. in fact the compile-time/run-time distinction feels very artificial there and is very much subject to where you place your point of view. in lisp with a mere function call you can compile functions to machine instructions that you can use from then on as first class objects; i.e. they can be unnamed functions that you can keep in a local variable, or a global hashtable, etc...
  • macros in lisp are very simple: a bunch of functions stuffed in a hashtable and given to the compiler. for each form the compiler is about to compile, it consults that hashtable. if it finds a function then calls it at compile-time with the original form, and in place of the original form it compiles the form this function returns. (modulo some non-important details) so lisp macros are basically plugins for the compiler.
  • writing a lisp function in lisp that evaluates lisp code is about two pages of code (this is usually called eval). in such a function you have all the power to introduce whatever new rules you want on the meta level. (making it run fast is going to take some effort though... about the same as bootstrapping a new language... :)

random examples of what you can implement as a user library using lisp metaprogramming (these are actual examples of common lisp libraries):

  • extend the language with delimited continuations (hu.dwim.delico)
  • implement a js-to-lisp-rpc macro that you can use in javascript (which is generated from lisp). it expands into a mixture of js/lisp code that automatically posts (in the http request) all the referenced local variables, decodes them on the server side, runs the lisp code body on the server, and returns back the return value to the javascript side.
  • add prolog like backtracking to the language that very seamlessly integrates with "normal" lisp code (see screamer)
  • an XML templating extension to common lisp (includes an example of reader macros that are plugins for the lisp parser)
  • a ton of small DSL's, like loop or iterate for easy looping

The alternative to template style meta-programming is Macro-style that you see in various Lisp implementations. I would suggest downloading Paul Graham's On Lisp and also taking a look at Clojure if you're interested in a Lisp with macros that runs on the JVM.

Macros in Lisp are much more powerful than C/C++ style and constitute a language in their own right -- they are meant for meta-programming.

Template metaprogramming is essentially abuse of the template mechanism. What I mean is that you get basically what you'd expect from a feature that was an unplanned side-effect --- it's a mess, and (although tools are getting better) a real pain in the ass because the language doesn't support you in doing it (I should note that my experience with state-of-the-art on this is out of date, since I essentially gave up on the approach. I've not heard of any great strides made, though)

Messing around with this in about '98 was what drove me to look for better solutions. I could write useful systems that relied on it, but they were hellish. Poking around eventually led me to Common Lisp. Sure, the template mechanism is Turing complete, but then again so is intercal.

Common Lisp does metaprogramming `right'. You have the full power of the language available while you do it, no special syntax, and because the language is very dynamic you can do more with it.

There are other options of course. No other language I've used does metaprogramming better than Lisp does, which is why I use it for research code. There are lots of reasons you might want to try something else though, but it's all going to be tradeoffs. You can look at Haskell/ML/OCaml etc. Lots of functional languages have something approaching the power of Lisp macros. You can find some .NET targeted stuff, but they're all pretty marginal (in terms of user base etc.). None of the big players in industrially used languages have anything like this, really.