Perl 6 Essentials

Author: Allison Randal, Dan Sugalski & Leopold Toetsch

ISBN: 0-596-00499-0

Publisher: O'Reilly & Associates

Reviewed by: Nicholas Clark

"How do you write a book about a language that does not exist?"

The short answer is that you can't. Here we have 208 pages of evidence that Perl 6 isn't just vapourware. Sure, you can't run a Perl 6 program yet (unless Damian's upgraded his brain to a multi-user OS), but most of basic design is done, a lot of Parrot (the runtime engine) is already written, and it is these things that this book is about.

The book is split into three parts. The first 3 chapters are fairly short, and give an introduction to the Perl 6 project - how it came about, what is the philosophy behind it, and how is it structured. The information in these chapters set the scene for what is to follow, but I suspect it is also of use to anyone outside the Perl community who is trying to work out what the secrets of Perl's success are, and how to emulate that success with their own collaborative projects.

Chapter 4 is the first big chapter, and gives a thorough grounding in Perl 6 syntax. The chapter is organised as an introduction to Perl 6 for the beginner - somewhere between the a pocket-sized "Perl 6 quick reference" and a "Learning Perl 6". The layout and text are clear, building up from scalars through arrays and hashes into some of the newer Perl 6 features, such as the extra context types, the generic smart match operator (~~), junctions and currying. The authors are careful to show how Perl 6 will be similar to Perl 5 by choosing examples that are very similar to exiting introductions to Perl 5. You have to look very carefully to spot the subtle differences in Perl 6 syntax - for example open returns a file handle, no parentheses are needed round the conditions of if etc, and that the sigils @ and % are used on array and hash element lookups instead of Perl 5's use of $. Unlike the Apocalypses (Larry's design documents) or Exegeses (Damian's explanations of how to use the new features) this book doesn't explain what's changed, and what's the same - that's not its intent. It presents Perl 6 as a coherent language with a stand alone description, a plan which works well. It took me about half the chapter to realise that no mention is ever made of Perl 5 - with this book you can learn Perl 6 without any any prior knowledge of Perl. (Although admittedly you'll be somewhat frustrated if you actually want to put your knowledge to use writing Perl 6 programs). The chapter concludes with rules (Perl 6's superset of regular expressions) and the new subroutine parameter syntax, so is currently completely up-to-date.

Chapters 5, 6 & 7 form the third part of the book, and describe parrot, the virtual machine on which Perl 6 will run. Parrot development is well under way, so there's a lot more of it in existence, and hence a lot more nailed down firmly enough to be written about. Consequently the Parrot section is about twice the size of the Perl 6 section. Chapter 5 introduces the design of Parrot, giving an broad overview of how its internals have been designed to give the flexibility and speed demanded respectively by the Perl 6 language and Perl 6's users. It explains the reasoning behind the design, such as why Dan has chosen to ignore current trends towards stack based virtual machines, and instead build a register based virtual machine. A lot is explained, clearly and concisely, but one commonly asked question seems to go unanswered, notably why write a whole new virtual machine rather than targeting (say) the Java VM or .NET.

At heart, Parrot is a register based virtual machine, running bytecode not dissimilar to the machine code of a register based hardware CPU. Hence at the lowest level, you can quite happily program Parrot in its own assembly language. Although most sane people will not do this, the ultimate output of all other languages running on Parrot will be Parrot bytecode, so it is helpful for the authors of such languages to know what the underlying system can do easily, and what is hard. Chapter 6 details this assembly language, providing a thorough tutorial in how to bend Parrot to your will. Although the low level nature of the assembly language is syntactically quite different from the high level language Perl 6, it directly supports most of the fundamental datatypes that Perl uses, such as arrays, hashes and lexical variables. This chapter is quite a lot drier than the chapter on Perl 6, and also ends with a 22 page quick reference, which might have been better as an appendix.

Parrot assembler has a big advantage over Perl 6, in that you can already download a working implementation of it, so if you wish you could start writing programs in it immediately. Masochists can even write sophisticated self-modifying code, as the Parrot assembler contains an eval op, although I suspect that even language implementors won't use the assembly language directly, but instead target IMCC, the subject of chapter 7. This Intermediate Code Compiler provides a much nicer target for compilers. Parrot itself has a fixed number of registers (32 of each type) whereas IMCC provides the illusion of infinite registers, so targeting IMCC instead lets you skip writing (and debugging) register spilling code. Likewise IMCC provides nested scopes to save each language having to write its own. A 6 page quick reference concludes both the chapter, and the book. An index follows, but there is no summary or conclusion chapter - it is taken as given that both Perl 6 and Parrot works in progress "to be continued...". This shouldn't come as a surprise as the introduction states that the intent is to publish a new edition of this book yearly to track developments up to the release of 6.0.0

The book is really two books in one - an overview of the Perl 6 language which will be useful to people interested in writing in high level languages, and a working introduction to Parrot, which will be useful to people interested in writing language interpreters. I'm not sure how many people fit into both groups, and hence whether most people will find little to interest them in some of the chapters. Based on their expertise, I suspect that the first 4 chapters were written by Allison, chapters 5 and 6 by Dan, and chapter 7 by Leopold. However, it's impossible to tell because the style is consistent throughout, with both the Perl 6 and Parrot examples full of Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy references. (A nice contrast to the camel book, which favours Flintstones and Simpsons references)

So, should you buy this book, particularly as you know that it will be updated within 12 months? If you've been following the twisty maze of Perl 6 development from the start, and you've been watching how the development lists functions, then you could argue that this is "just" telling you things that you already know, or at least do once you've been reminded of them. Even if you haven't, you could still glean most this information from studying online announcements and mailing lists archives (although you should avoid doing this if you value your time and your sanity). A notable exception are the contents of Chapter 3, Design Philosophy - I don't think the principles behind the design of Perl 6 have been written down in a coherent clear way before.

My impression is the book is aimed at people outside the project looking in, who want to know what's going on. The authors and their excellent job of accurately and readably summarising the important bits, and unlike the list archives they don't fill your brain with a lot of things that you don't need to know. Even if you're already following Perl 6 or Parrot this book will give you a good summary of what has been decided to date. However, it will date quickly (some of the parrot section is already history), so this year's edition will only really leapfrog you up to July 2003 - from there on you'll have to bring yourself up to date with the online documentation. If you don't want to do this, you could wait until next year's edition - although you'll have to be ready to move immediately that comes out, else you'll be in exactly the same position behind the times in 2004.