Detecting star imports in Python

Star (or wildcard) imports are one of the methods for importing libraries in Python, and although they are generally discouraged, they are rather prevalent in a lot of notebook-style scientific code. Within a package being imported, there is no official way of knowing whether this is by a star import, but since Python allows overriding just about everything, we can detect slight differences in the methods and inject arbitrary code if the wildcard is used.

In QuTiP, we currently suffer from long import times and want to move to a scipy-like style where fewer symbols are in the global package namespace, and submodules are only imported if explicitly requested. We want to issue a warning to people currently using the from qutip import * syntax, because the number of symbols available to them will soon decrease.

The import system

Whenever a package or module is used in Python, it first has to be imported into the current scope. The import statement can take a few different forms, depending on how many names are to be imported the package, and whether they should be placed in the module’s namespace or the global one:

  • import module: make all names accessible under the module name module, like module.name1;
  • from module import (name1, name2): make only name1 and name2 visible in the global scope—the module is imported and added to sys.modules, but the module name is not added to the scope;
  • from module import *: make “all” names in the module visible in the current global scope. The module name is not added to the scope.

The first two are common and clean ways to bring in additional functionality, but the latter is rather more contentious because it will typically import many names into the global namespace which could overwrite existing definitions or built-ins. It also in general means that IDEs and linters will not be able to detect which package a given symbol has come from, or if it is even defined at all.

For all methods, the (for a package) or [module].py (for a module) is run first in an empty scope to initialise the module and execute all the code contained within. If a wildcard import is used, then all names in the module scope are added to the outer scope, unless they begin with an underscore.

The package can control wildcard imports a little bit, to prevent all of the names being imported. This is the __all__ object, to be defined at module scope. For example, a module build may provide the functions read_code, write_code, and compile. Now compile is a Python built-in, so this should not be exported unless the user specifically asks for it to shadow the default definition. To achieve this, the looks like

__all__ = ['read_code', 'write_code']

def read_code(*args, **kwargs):

def write_code(*args, **kwargs):

def compile(*args, **kwargs):

Now import build will allow build.read_code, build.write_code and build.compile to be used, since all those names exist in the inner scope. However, from build import * will only give access to read_code and write_code, because the import system was told that that is “__all__” there is. In pseudo-code the wildcard import is very similar to

scope = globals()
import build
for name in build.__all__:
    scope[name] = getattr(build, name)
del build

For detection purposes, it is important that __all__ is only accessed in the case of the wildcard import, but it is always created.

Detecting the wildcard import

__all__ is a sequence of strings, but Python’s dynamic typing means that it does not have to be a list, it just has to behave like one. This means that we can make an object which behaves like a list, but with side-effects when a caller attempts to iterate through it. It is not enough to pass a warning on creation, because then all imports will see it.

An example file then looks like:

import warnings as _warnings
from qutip.core import Qobj, sesolve
from qutip import control

class _StarDetector(list):
    def __iter__(self):
        _warnings.warn("QuTiP 5 will require explicit importing of submodules",
        return super().__iter__()

__all__ = _StarDetector(['Qobj', 'sesolve', 'control'])

del _StarDetector

The wrapper class _StarDetector inherits from list, so its behaviour is identical. It overrides the __iter__ method, but only to insert the code to be run; it then calls list.__iter__ via super so that the normal workings are not interrupted:

>>> import qutip
>>> dir(qutip)
['Qobj', '__all__', ..., '_warnings', 'control', 'sesolve']
>>> from qutip import Qobj

The star import triggers the warning, however:

>>> from qutip import *
.../qutip/ FutureWarning: QuTiP 5 will require explicit importing of submodules.

There are a couple of limitations to this:

  • it will only work in a package, not a module;
  • the iteration is done after the file has been executed in full, so it cannot be used to modify the importing process itself;
  • DeprecationWarning will be hidden by default loggers, as the import system does not count as being “code in __main__”—hence FutureWarning in use here;
  • somebody importing the module normally and accessing __all__ will still see the warning.

This is rather hacky, and a linter may well (correctly!) shout at you. Still, due to Python’s dynamic typing, there is a way to detect star imports, even if it is not really the best practice!